EPL: Defensive Depth Will Decide The Champ

Manchester United threw away a two-goal lead for the second week in a row, this time against Liverpool. Fortunately for Ferguson's men Steven Gerrard's equalizer left them a little more time to recover than Mikel Arteta's last gasp goal the previous weekend. Liverpool were basically gifted a lifeline which their performance had done nothing to warrant by two uncharacteristic errors of judgement by Manchester United defenders. It is normally Manchester United who make the dramatic comebacks, but this season opponents have repeatedly been allowed back into games as a result of defensive lapses.

Three goals away to Everton, two goals away to Fulham, and three goals at home to Liverpool symbolizes a more than respectable return from Manchester United's attackers. It is the seven goals which have been conceded in these three games which are undermining the club's Premiership winning credentials. These goals have effectively resulted in the loss of four vital points, and it would have been more but for Dimitar Berbatov's heroics against Liverpool.

While Ferguson's first choice back four are as good as any in Europe, it is becoming increasingly apparent that some of his stand-ins are simply not up to scratch. Defending is unlike any other footballing art. While the likes of Nani and Berbatov will be judged on their moments of magic and can afford to make a couple of mistakes, defenders have absolutely no margin for error. If Nani puts a cross into the stand, as the mercurial Portugese winger is occasionally prone to do, it is frustrating but there is no real harm done. An attack might have broken down but all the opposition have to show for it is a goal kick. If a defender makes an error, by contrast, there is a very high possibility that the opposition will capitalize by scoring a goal.

Manchester United's display against Liverpool was impeccable up until the 64th minute when stand in centre back Johnny Evans made a rash challenge on Fernando Torres. Had Evans not gone flying in Torres might still have found the back of the net. The Spanish striker is not in a particularly rich vein of scoring form though and Edwin Van Der Sar would have backed himself to make the save from an acute angle. Instead Evans' lunge made the Spanish striker's mind up for him, giving Torres the simplest of tasks to cut inside and go down for a cast iron penalty which Gerrard confidently converted.

It is the sort of reckless challenge which first choice centre back Rio Ferdinand would have been far too experienced to have made. Manchester United's next moment of defensive madness gave Gerrard his second goal. The midfielder had been almost anonymous as an attacking threat in an unfamiliar anchor role, and is probably wondering how he managed to get his name on the score sheet twice. Raul Meireles' pass looked to be slightly too heavy for Torres to actually get on the end of it, but John O'Shea decided to deliberately obstruct the onrushing attacker anyway. The majority of referees would have sent O'Shea off, but Howard Webb was lenient in only producing a yellow card. He presumably took the view that as the goalkeeper was the favourite to get to the ball first, it did not constitute a clear goalscoring opportunity.

O'Shea was extremely fortunate, but his decision making here was poor. As it was Manchester United were punished anyway when Gerrard's free kick went straight through the wall to leave Van Der Sar completely wrong footed. First choice full back Gary Neville might have been culpable for allowing Leighton Baines to provide the ammunition with which Everton pulled back two late goals, but it is unlikely he would have pulled Torres down quite so cynically. On this occasion Manchester United were handed a reprieve when Berbatov headed home the winner, but finding decent quality defensive replacements is one of the greatest challenges facing any Premiership manager.

The defence is one area which managers are always reluctant to rotate and world class players will never want to settle for a place on the bench. This makes it extremely difficult to keep defensive players of a suitable calibre in reserve. Chelsea had four outstanding centre backs last season in John Terry, Alex, Ricardo Carvalho, and Branislav Ivanovic. They were unable to keep all of them content though and lost the services of the outstanding Carvalho in the summer, leaving the squad looking a little light with just three recognized centre backs. Ferguson has four international centre backs in Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown, and Jonny Evans, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that only two of them, Ferdinand and Vidic, provide the sort of defensive solidity necessary to mount a sustained Premiership challenge.

It is a fine balancing act for the likes of Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti. On the one hand they need to ensure that they have a strong enough squad to cope with the loss of key first team players. On the other hand they need to keep players happy by giving them regular first team football. Ancelotti's decision to allow Carvalho to leave without signing a replacement may come back to haunt him if two of his three existing centre backs end up absent at the same time. Manchester United's slightly erratic start to the season highlights just how crucial it is that Vidic and Ferdinand stay fit.

It is a difficult situation to address. Displacing either Ferdinand or Vidic in the team is unthinkable and no world class centre back is going to want to join Manchester United while these two are effectively guaranteed a spot in the side. Likewise Ancelotti will struggle to persuade a top class defender to sign for Chelsea in order to act as cover for Alex and Terry. The Premiership race will, in all probability, be won by either Chelsea or Manchester United. Suspensions and injuries are bound to take their toll and how well either side's second string defenders perform will be key. Manchester United are already trailing Chelsea by four points as a result of dropping points due to defensive lapses, they cannot afford to drop too many more if they are serious with their title ambition.

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