DAVID MOYES must find a way of restoring Manchester United's sense of invincibility if they are to avoid throwing away their hopes of retaining the league title.
Forget the predictions that United will now struggle to qualify for the Champions League following their latest poor result because I do not see any reason to believe they will not secure a top-four finish. But in terms of the title, they are certainly on the verge of losing it as a consequence of their unconvincing start to the season.
Arsenal may be eight points clear of United at the moment, but the big two – Chelsea and Manchester City – are the rivals they have to keep close to and there is a danger that they will disappear over the horizon if the gap grows any bigger.
Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, who remain the best strike-pairing in the league, are two huge factors in my confidence that United will have nothing to worry about in terms of Champions League qualification. But Moyes' players need to get their act together quickly in order to remain in the title race because they are approaching a crucial stage of their campaign. It is make-or-break time.
Confidence and belief has become an issue, however, and it is showing itself in the closing stages of games, when United are struggling to see off opponents.
Where you would once expect a United surge in the final 10 minutes, an all-engulfing attack on the opposition penalty area, you now have a team who are conceding late goals to throw away a much-needed victory against Southampton.
In terms of the confidence spectrum, United have gone from being a team that felt invincible due to their ability to win games late on to one who now doubt themselves when the game is there to be won.
That happens when results fall away. You lose the sense of being able to rely on team-mates and self-doubt creeps in. And defensively, you can see those issues emerging at United because every position in the back four has become a problem.
Right-back is an area of concern because Phil Jones and Chris Smalling want to be centre-halves and Rafael, while he has made progress, has still to prove that he really is the solution.
On the other side, Patrice Evra does not get back into position as quickly as he once did and he knows that Moyes has made efforts to sign Leighton Baines, which would be a real coup on the basis of his recent performances for England.
The problems and uncertainty at the back are why United have kept just two clean sheets in 12 games. But the paradox to United's poor results this season is that they were performing just as badly, if not worse, this time 12 months ago under Alex Ferguson.
Rather than find themselves languishing eight points off the leaders, though, they were a point clear at the top of the league after 10 games.
United were truly awful at times in the early weeks and months of last season, but the difference between then and now was that they dragged themselves to victories with the late surges that are missing now.
Maybe that is down to the 'Fergie factor' but it is more likely down to the inevitability that, sooner or later, the tide begins to turn.
The players are a year older, the vulnerabilities are more readily exposed and opponents no longer fear the late onslaughts that turned so many draws into victories.
However, while the picture looks anything but rosy right now, you cannot escape the fact that United still have Rooney and Van Persie. They are two players who can win games – any game – from nothing and that will happen at some point.
And United still possess that core of top-quality players who are capable of arresting the slide and turning results around.
I won the League and FA Cup double with Liverpool in 1986 with probably the worst team I played in at Anfield. The reason we were successful was that we got ourselves together and built incredible momentum in the closing weeks of the season. United are more than capable of doing that, but they cannot allow themselves to fall further behind Chelsea and City.
They do not need to look over their shoulders at Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Everton in a race for fourth place, but the clock is ticking if they really want to drag themselves back into the mix for the title. (© Daily Telegraph, London)