When Manchester United defeated West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, they didn’t look like the offensive juggernaut we’d gotten used to seeing these past few weeks.
The midfielders didn’t overrun WBA. They didn’t score 17 times. United didn’t dominate WBA, and the win once again wasn’t as comfortable as sir Alex Ferguson might have hoped.
But it was still United’s best game I’d seen in weeks. For the first time in 12 games, David De Gea was able to keep a clean sheet. The defense looked organised, and in control of the proceedings.
Nemanja Vidic was the man who took the headlines. He must have blocked a gazillion shots and was at the end of seemingly every cross the Baggies fired into the box.
Vidic took some pressure off the shoulders of Chris Smalling, who as a result looked like a far better player than he had in recent times. While he still had a lot of difficulties with Peter Odemwingie and his pace, Smalling put together a solid performance overall.
We all know United can score. They have the deepest and most gifted front line in the Barclays Premier League and can match up with anyone outside of it. But scoring alone doesn’t win you championships.
The absolute heavyweights of European football can score as well, and teams like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus know a thing or two about playing defense.
With an attack as talented as United’s, outscoring most BPL teams frankly isn’t difficult. But unless you learn how to defend your own goal, you won’t be outscoring the very best Spain, Germany and Italy have to offer.
The good news is that United have the potential to have a strong defensive unit, and with that facet of the game in order, there is no reason not to believe in the team’s chances on the grand stage of European football.
But it will all come down to Vidic. Without him, the structure of United’s defense falls apart. Smalling can’t take the reigns and comfortably run this defense against a team as talented as, for example, Real.
Vidic’s experience and vision on the field allow United’s wing backs to play their game of moving up on the pitch without having to fear the spaces they might be leaving in their backs.
Manchester aren’t a team without faults, and the January transfer window will give us some insight into how Ferguson feels about the play of his central midfielders for example. But United’s key weakness this season has been the fragility of the defense, and that won’t be solved by bringing in one or two additional defenders.
It’ll start with Vidic. And if it doesn’t, fans shouldn’t hold their breaths about a deep run in the UEFA Champions League. Christiano Ronaldo and company will take care of that.