not talking about a crisis yet. After all, they are top of the
Premiership and I believe they will beat Dynamo Kiev at home to
secure their place in the next round of the Champions League.
But if they repeat the performances against PSV Eindhoven and
Anderlecht - and remember they had a couple of scares away to Kiev -
then Sir Alex Ferguson might have to make a move into the transfer
market because no matter how good your players are, once your
defence starts leaking goals it affects everybody.
Ferguson is facing a dilemma. I've watched United half a dozen times
this season and they have looked as solid as a rock. But while the
defence appears strong enough to cope with the demands of the
Premiership it does not look so secure in the Champions League,
where they are meeting players and teams of a higher level.
If they played like they did against Anderlecht against one of the
top European sides in the latter stages of the competition they
would be out of it. As we saw against Real Madrid last season, you
come under far greater pressure in the Champions League than you
would do in most domestic games and if you are not rock solid then
you are going to have problems.
This isn't a new development either. Last season I felt United's
defence was a little suspect for two reasons. First they lacked a
consistent goalkeeper, and secondly a regular partner for Jaap Stam
at centre-back. Yet they still won the championship by 18 points and
that tells you they have to be strong somewhere else. And United's
"front six" are outstanding - just take a look at the 97 goals they
scored in the Premiership.
This season they have solved the goalkeeper problem by buying Fabien
Barthez, but have suffered a serious blow in losing Stam. If you
removed the best defender from any team they would struggle in
But the back four they can put out is still good enough to do the
business in the Premiership because United tend to just roll over
teams. They don't come up against teams who throw six or seven
players forward in all-out attack as they sometimes do in Europe.
It is worth noting that Roy Keane was missing against Anderlecht. He
is a massive influence on the team in both directions. He plays
right in front of the back four and offers them real protection. But
when you have a squad of United's size and stature injuries are no
longer a valid excuse.
Now could be the time for Ferguson to push Wes Brown back into
action. Ferguson has been sensible with Brown, easing him back
slowly after his long injury. You have to be careful with players
after lengthy lay-offs. The original injury may have cleared up, but
the player has been out of action for so long he can be susceptible
to all sorts of other niggles and strains.
That seems to be the case with Ronny Johnsen, who was out for a
similar period to Brown and seems to be picking up a number of minor
injuries now. If Brown had not suffered his injury I'm sure he would
be a regular in the team now. I rated him highly before his injury
and from the brief appearances he's made so far this season he does
not appear to have lost anything.
Ferguson has been careful not to rush him back because he knows he
has a real star on his hands. The boy can be anything he wants
unless the club takes risks with his fitness.
In the absence of Stam and Brown this season United's best defender
has been Gary Neville, particularly when he plays centre-half. When
you play at right-back you have got to be able to use the ball. That
is Gary's weakness, he's not great on the ball.
But when he plays at centre-back he can use his assets. He defends
well with no frills, is a great reader of the game and when he wins
possession he can just play the ball simply to one of his midfield
men. People say he's not big enough to be a centre-half, but he's an
intelligent footballer and I don't think his height is a major
Even without Stam for another couple of months, I don't think United
have got a problem in the Premiership. They have just got to pray
the big Dutchman is fit and back to his best by the time the
Champions League resumes after its mid-winter break and that in the
meantime Brown has begun to show he can fulfil his enormous
A Stam-Brown partnership is one
to savour. The sooner they are together the better for United.