ALEX FERGUSON vowed that Manchester United would never again lose the league title on goal difference after being pipped by Manchester City last season but, judging from their start to this campaign, it seems that his team have a little trouble understanding the concept.
United are three points clear of City but, if they lose against them next Sunday, will find themselves in the same position that they ended last season – behind on goal difference.
Their 'can't someone else do it' attitude to defending suggests they haven't realised that, in terms of goal difference, a 2-0 win is better than a 4-3 one. United have scored a mammoth 37 goals but have conceded 21, already six more than Chelsea conceded in the whole of the 2004-05 season in which they won the league.
United have traditionally had a more attacking-orientated philosophy than Jose Mourinho's Chelsea but in the game that ended up handing the initiative to City last season, United scored four times. The trouble was, so did Everton, and United couldn't defend a two-goal cushion with seven minutes to go.
Despite such a glaring weakness, Ferguson chose not to strengthen either in midfield or defence in the summer but instead splashed out on Robin van Persie. It's impossible to criticise that signing but the 'if they score three, we'll score four' attitude will eventually come unstuck – and of all people, Ferguson should know.
In the 1995-96 season, his United team hunted down Newcastle after trailing them by 12 points in January. After Christmas it started to become clear that Newcastle's defence was struggling but, rather than solidify that area, in February, Keegan unveiled Faustino Asprilla. Yet, after 15 games of that season, the stage United are at now, Newcastle had already had five clean sheets and conceded just 11 goals – 10 fewer than United have this season.
Every other team in the Premier League would swap places with United at the moment but there have been so many defensive warning signs over the past few months that would have made Keegan's Newcastle defence blush.
On Saturday, Rio Ferdinand conceded that some of their defending had been "sloppy" at Reading but there seems to be such a lack of desire to perform basic defending that 'sloppy' doesn't even come close to covering it.
"This is not football!" was Gary Neville's succinct verdict on Twitter after Van Persie put United 4-3 up after 34 minutes, but Saturday's game did have a passing resemblance to the five-a-side version of the game where a group of lads meet up, shoot from anywhere, score from rebounds and one team goes home happy having won 12-10. If all supporters wanted to see was goals, there'd be an entrance fee to watch at the local Astropark.
Like rugby Sevens or the GAA All Star game, there is a huge reduction in the appeal of the game when defending becomes an optional, rather than essential, part of it. The obvious solution to United's problem is the return of Nemanja Vidic but, even if the defence could adopt his attitude to defending, if not his ability to carry it out, United would be in a better place.
The determination that, if a winger is trying to cross the ball, the full-back might take it in the face rather than duck out of the way; or if a centre-forward makes a silly run not to play him onside from 20 yards away as Nicky Shorey did for United's winner on Saturday. Or a centre-back might actually try to jump and win a header instead of being focused on blocking his opponent from doing so.
Great defenders are pessimists because they cover every cross as though their team-mate will miss it or expect their goalkeeper to fumble every shot so that they, rather than the centre-forward, will react first. On Saturday, as they have been all season, United's defence always seem to expect the best-case scenario.
As well as great attacking intent, Ferguson's teams have always been rooted in doing the fundamentals but they resemble a snooker player who is constantly having to produce a long pot in order to get themselves back in decent position. And if that pattern continues, they will eventually fail.
Any team that has already conceded five more goals than Arsenal at this stage of the season should be fearful of a visit to City, whose victory at Old Trafford last season should have been the final warning that United needed more defensive cover.
Instead, United continued on with glaring weaknesses at full-back which cost them against Everton and, when it came to a step-up in quality, they were ripped apart over two legs by a rampant Athletic Bilbao side.
By this time next week, there will be a far clearer picture of United's season having come through the Manchester derby and also knowing their opponents in the Champions League last 16. As it stands, they could play Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus, Valencia or Benfica, all of whom could be confident of being better in attack than Reading.
Last season there were similar warning signs and United finished with games that were exciting for the neutral, but without a trophy. Just the way Keegan's Newcastle will be remembered.