Someone remarked recently that the Premier League has abandoned the anachronistic and pompous notions of sport, with its rules and pretensions of honour and nobility, and moved into WWE realms of pure theatrical entertainment. It's an argument that holds a lot of ground - not only have we got the personal disputes, the race-baiting and the handshakes, we've also seen Manchester United stringing out the drama like a Goosebumps novel, every chapter four pages long and featuring a contrived cliffhanger. Amazing escapes from seemingly hopeless situations used to be season-defining moments. Now they happen every week. Manchester United are two goals down? Well, Match of the Day just showed us Chicharito coming on. Chekhov's sub. You can turn your televisions off and go to bed, because you know exactly how it ends. They've started to resemble a tribute act to themselves.
This transition leaves them in an odd place. The great team of 2008 is dead once and for all. It probably was when Ronaldo left, but it was always structured around that impenetrable defence, of which Ferdinand and Vidic are crocked and Evra has declined. During the latter struggles of that team, it was a common complaint among United fans that Ferguson had completely sold out to pragmatism, that even a team of breathtaking attacking talent was content to hang on for 1-0 victories. Now, they wouldn't go down as being close to a great United side, are playing some of their least fluent football in years, and yet they're scoring shedloads of goals in a kamikaze style. They are the idealised 'United', and yet they are not.
Mostly when a team is getting results there's a refusal on part of the manager or players to admit they're playing anything other than the glorious football that warrants the points, but Rio Ferdinand confessed in his post-match interview against Arsenal that there was a sense of disappointment in the dressing room about their performances. a recent post-match interview that United hadn't been at their best. Arsenal were rancid that day, contributing nothing for 90 minutes, and it was telling just how few of their fans attempted to mount the "we only lost by one goal!" defence. The fact is, United don't look capable of giving anyone a hammering at the moment.
The fact that United have so frequently had to come from behind and found themselves in such high-scoring games is down to simple shoddy defending. It's partly excusable from United's ridiculous level of injuries - all of their centre-backs have been injured at some point already, with Chris Smalling only just having returned and Phil Jones yet to feature. The return of those last two will give United more options at the back, but options aren't what they need right now. The Chelsea Carling Cup game aside, United haven't been letting in goals because they've been forced to field inferior defenders, they've been letting in goals because of a continually unsettled and ever-rotating back four. More than anything, they need solidity and certainty.
One piece is in place already in Rafael, a player enjoying an excellent season who has even added important goals to his game. He has been responsible for some goals conceded, but only due to being high up the pitch during an attack, a natural risk of attacking in numbers and not due to any personal fault or avoidable mistake. On the other flank, Patrice Evra appears to be playing not quite as bad as last year, although why Ferguson bought a backup in Alexander Buttner who appears to possess a carbon copy of his strengths and weaknesses is a mystery.
The real problem then, comes at centre-back. With the return of Chris Smalling, Alex Ferguson needs to be ruthless and decide not which is his best possible centre-back pairing, but which is most capable of being fit and in form for a solid run for the three or four months necessary to resettle his team. His rotation policy has been highly questionable at times this season, with David de Gea and Rafael both proving the merits of giving someone a consistent run in the team, and the folly of dropping them for every perceived mistake.
When the defence is solidified, the rest of the team will likely follow. There's more at stake than just panelling Wigan Athletic here - United have had few real tests so far this season, and none of them have been passed convincingly. They were hugely fortunate to overcome a rotten Liverpool and relied heavily on luck to defeat Chelsea, but Tottenham showed their real weaknesses.
In that game against Spurs, United allowed a team a long way from their best to take a two-goal lead, then saw their comeback routine draw blanks, despite the overall excellence of their second-half performance. The difference between that game and the one against Aston Villa is - surprise! - Spurs are a proper, well-organised team of good players, not a hapless rabble of eleven stuffed shirts. Replace 'Aston Villa' with 'Braga' and 'Tottenham' with 'literally any half-decent Champions League outfit' and it's not hard to see that United are heading for disaster in Europe. Those charmed victories aside, they're resembling a Don King fighter, racking up their wins tally against a collection of bums and no-hopers, in danger of falling for their own hype.
As entertaining as United have been, that defensive composure is necessary if they are to progress in Europe and almost certainly needed to prevail on the domestic front too. The real advantage for them is that there is no need for 'solidity' to be synonymous with 'negativity' - the fact they have scored so many goals while playing such disjointed football is nothing short of a miracle, and increased possession and composure can only add to their firepower. United have all the cards necessary to make this a hugely successful season - it's just a case of whether they can play them all at the same time.