Jim White

Manchester’s crumbling defences

Jim White

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Manchester City fans have recently adopted their red
neighbours' favourite chant and have begun to sing about how they are Man City
and they'll score when they want. It is a chant that is a fair reflection on
Roberto Mancini's side's Premier League campaign.

In England, every week, teams
are being battered by the superiority of blue firepower. Goals come from all
quarters and at all times. For disbelieving
City supporters, the old line about it doesn't matter how many the opposition
score, we'll score more is being writ gloriously large.

Shame Europe seems to be a different proposition altogether.

Equally, across town United have adroitly regrouped from traumatic
derby defeat by accumulating a bunch of cagey 1-0 wins in domestic competition.
The defence has been tightened, recklessness discarded, three points regarded
as far more important than cavalier entertainment. The clean sheet has been restored
as the pre-requisite for victory.

Except in the Champions League, where, much
to his evident chagrin in the after-match press conference, the simple
defensive arts appear to have been mislaid by Alex Ferguson's team.

Yesterday was not a good day for Manchester in Europe. And
in both cases, it was the defence that let down the sides dominating the
English league.

Take City. The first goal they conceded against Napoli was
down to inept defending.

I'm not sure exactly when fashion changed for defending a
corner. But when I played football - admittedly so long ago shorts barely grazed
the top of the thigh - the first duty on conceding a corner was to mark the
posts. The cry would go up "posts" and the two full-backs would guard the

About three seasons ago, such fundamentals were clearly thought to be
archaic; defensive coaches wanted their defenders out of the box quicker when
the ball was cleared, and thought men on posts risks playing opposing forwards
onside. But the inevitable corollary has been the conceding of goals. This season
I have seen about four matches in which a goal is scored from a corner via a shot
which would easily have been cleared had someone been on the posts (Jack
Rodwell's header for Everton at St James' Park but one of them).

So it was in Naples last night. City's Joe Hart was beaten
by a ping-ponged shot from a stinging low corner that would have been booted
away had one of the full-backs been on the near post. There was no other way to
look at it - it was a goal given away. And 1-0 down to Napoli is not the
same as being 1-0 down to Wolves.

Likewise, at Old Trafford, United's defending against Benfica
was at times comically generous to the opposition. For both of the visitors'
goals, United's vaunted pair of English centre-backs were at fault. Both Phil
Jones and Rio Ferdinand were caught sideways on, at right angles to play, their
balance all wrong as a cross came in. The consequence was that both diverted the
ball in precisely the wrong place: Jones into his own net, Ferdinand into the
path of Pablo Aimar, who couldn't miss.

But while Ferdinand might have been the final culprit, that
second goal showed a wider defensive malaise. It came about after David de Gea's
scrambled clearance from a previous attack was quickly recycled back into the
United area. I remember from playing centre-back, albeit at a marginally less
elevated level than the Champions League, that defending against a second-phase
attack was the toughest call. You have just cleared the danger, you are just
regrouping, just getting the line right, and the ball comes straight back at

It is why a centre forward who can hold up the ball, whose touch allows a
clearance to stick at his feet, is always the first line of defence. But then,
even though United deployed one of them last night, De Gea's clearance never
got close to Dimitar Berbatov. It was proof it takes a team to defend.

And what both City and United found last night is that, in
the Champions League, the opportunity to atone for mistakes does not come as
easily as it does at home. Against a bunch of Italians, City were never going
to be gifted as many chances as they gave their opponents.

Of course, ruthlessness in front of goal is an essential
part of the game. But the Champions League is won by the amalgam of attacking
excellence and defensive nous. Which is why, when chasing the only serious
threat Barcelona face in the competition, the sound money is rapidly moving from
Manchester to Munich and Madrid.

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