A pell-mell 4-3 win over Newcastle on Boxing Day proved to be the final wake-up call for a tightening up at the back
This had been the "cartoon cavalcade" season of defending for Manchester United. But then a pell-mell Boxing Day 4-3 win over Newcastle United proved the final wake-up call for a tightening up at the back and the defence has since grown stronger each week.
What was an early-season liability is now the rock of United's three-pronged challenge on the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. A team that could not stop going behind first have rediscovered the art of defensive parsimony.
"Earlier in the season we were conceding too many," admitted Wayne Rooney, after Saturday's 4-0 win over Norwich City at Old Trafford completed a fourth-consecutive clean sheet in the league.
Since the victory over Newcastle, the defence have kept the opposition out in seven of their last 14 matches, with a paltry eight showing in the goals against column, compared with only one clean sheet in the club's previous 17 games, when 29 were shipped.
As Real Madrid fly over for the defining part of a Champions League blockbuster with United on Tuesday evening, with the last-16 tie poised at 1–1, Sir Alex Ferguson's recalibration of the defence is timely.
"I think the awareness of the game has improved," the manager says.
"In the early part of the season we were giving all these early goals away and that may have been a combination of the fact that we had defenders out. In the first game of the season we had to play Michael Carrick at centre-half because we had four centre-backs out. That had its impact."
For that match, at Everton, Ferguson was without Phil Jones with a back problem, Rio Ferdinand (groin), Chris Smalling (metatarsal) and Jonny Evans (ankle), while Nemanja Vidic was playing for the first time since the previous December due to the knee injury he suffered in a Champions League game at FC Basel. Marouane Fellaini duly preyed on Carrick to score a 57th-minute winner that consigned United to defeat.
The Belgian's goal also began United's damaging habit of falling behind first in matches. In 17 of United's 40 games in all competitions this season the opposition have scored first, although since Boxing Day, when Newcastle took the lead after four minutes, it has happened only once: in the 2-1 win over Southampton more than five weeks ago.
Following the defensive crisis at Everton, there were further problems for Ferguson. Jones did not play at all until late November, while Vidic, the captain, suffered a further knee injury that ruled him out for three months until mid-December.Yet now, although he has to select carefully when to play as he nurses that suspect knee – Vidic was not selected for the opening leg in Madrid – Ferguson finds himself with the opposite problem: an embarrassment of defensive riches from which to choose.
Eleven games in all competitions have now passed since United conceded more than once. In this sequence Ferguson has deployed five pairings at centre-half: Ferdinand and Vidic have been in the side three times, while the combinations of Smalling and Jones, Smalling and Vidic, Ferdinand and Evans, and Vidic and Evans have all featured twice.
Ferguson also points to improvements in his goalkeeper, David de Gea, whose saves-to-shots ratio is second only to Swansea City's Gerhard Tremmel, and Rafael da Silva at right-back.
"Rafa is having an unbelievable season. De Gea is improving," the Scot says.
A favourite mantra of Ferguson's is that the campaign does not truly kick in until the new year.
The idea is for the side to keep in contention until then before focus should sharpen as spring brings the run-in towards the major trophies.
Ferguson believes his defence have complied. "In the last few weeks there has been a definite change in terms of concentration and the awareness that these games are important," he says.
Ferdinand's 11 years at the club, alongside the experience of Paul Scholes (two decades) and Ryan Giggs, who will make a staggering 1,000th senior appearance on Tuesday, have also helped. "With the likes of Ryan and Rio and Scholes – [they] play their part, there is no doubt about that," he says. "Rafa was interviewed last week and made the point about how Giggs has helped him."
United have managed only two clean sheets in their last 10 home Champions League games. In the three campaigns when the club reached the final (2007-08, 08-09, and 10-11) they registered 11 in 18 games to illustrate how success against the continental elite is founded on defence.
Jones apart, who has a "fight on his hands" to feature against Madrid due to an ankle injury, tThe defence Ferguson fields on Tuesday will be intriguing. Rafael, De Gea and Patrice Evra are certainties, so who features at centre-back is the big question. On Friday Ferguson mentioned the need to get Ferdinand "ready" for Madrid – he missed the Norwich game with flu – and with Evans having a case for being considered the de facto first choice there is a real chance that Vidic, who played on Saturday, could again miss out.
The Scot, who will note Real's 2-1 win over Barcelona on Saturday, which was their second in five days, was at the first: a 3-1 victory at the Nou Camp as Jose Mourinho's side reached the Copa del Rey final in a display that sent a warning to United. "I was shocked. I thought Real Madrid were magnificent I really did," Ferguson says. "But we knew that Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe, there is no question about that. That is what we will be up against on Tuesday and that is what our preparations are centring around."
It was another 4-3 win, at Reading on 1 December, a seven-goal avalanche during 26 chaotic, first-half minutes, that prompted the "cartoon cavalcade" outburst from Ferguson.
That seems a long time ago now. Against Cristiano Ronaldo and company, knowing a clean sheet would see United through, he will want no reminder of the "agony" he suffered at the Madejski Stadium.