Chronic back problems a real pain in Manchester
DEFENSIVE problems are threatening to ruin the ambitions of both Manchester clubs this season.
City, it must be said, stand in a better position to right the wrongs. Because, while Roberto Mancini has enough quality players to do much better, Alex Ferguson has to work from a much smaller squad beset by injuries and declining form.
Ferguson has been extraordinarily unlucky to lose Nemanja Vidic at a time when Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are also missing.
On top of that, Rio Ferdinand is showing signs of age that have proved costly of late. When you cannot get about the pitch as quickly and nimbly as you once did, confidence is bound to suffer as hesitancy creeps in.
That also applies to Patrice Evra, whose struggles at left-back further weaken a back four that should be seriously tested again at Newcastle tomorrow.
Remember this fixture last season? Alan Pardew's players trampled all over the visitors with their superior speed, strength and general intensity.
In the middle of the park, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick just could not cope with the energy of Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, while Demba Ba gave Ferdinand and Jones a proper runaround.
Ferguson certainly will not have forgotten that humbling night and, under the circumstances, you would not blame him for changing tack to avoid a repeat, even if it means compromising United's usual attacking adventure.
Ferdinand, for instance, would surely welcome a deeper backline to combat the pace of Ba and Papiss Cisse.
In terms of anticipation and positioning, the centre-half is still one of the best around but, as his 34th birthday approaches, he does not need to be constantly running towards his own goal.
That happened far too often against Tottenham last week, partly because the midfield could not offer much protection when the likes of Gareth Bale stormed through the middle.
It led to Jonny Evans committing the cardinal sin of crossing over, running behind Ferdinand and leaving a huge gap.
To avoid such scenarios, United's central midfielders could do worse than sit nice and tight in front of that rearguard to deny any space for the counter-attack.
Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs or Carrick do not have the legs to compete in a straight chase. They have got to turn this match into a test of pure ability. On that front at least, they stand a great chance.
Few can understand why Mancini changed a winning system, why he dropped Joleon Lescott as Vincent Kompany's partner or why he started experimenting with three at the back.
The club's famous title victory, after all, was built on defensive resolve. In Kompany and Lescott, City had two top centre-halves.
From what I hear, though, the Italian truly believed he had to make changes in order to move the team forward. That meant introducing a better player on the ball than the limited Lescott, hence the appearance of young Matija Nastasic.
In pre-season the team had looked very good with three centre-halves. It seemed like a shape that might work. Mancini, however, was forced to rethink when the tactic backfired at Liverpool in August. Neither did it last long against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, the manager quickly reverting to four at the back after conceding a soft goal with three.
The move only seemed to confuse, to leave defenders unsure of their precise role.
For today's home game with Sunderland, Mancini will surely stick with what his players know best and hope that several can up their game to the levels of last term. Kompany, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri -- none have found the form that served City so well.
A certain starter today will be Gareth Barry, whose calm demeanour and sound positioning have been missed at times.
His experience would certainly be useful in countering the lively Stephane Sessegnon, just as Lescott's strength in the air might come in handy if James McClean gets a chance to swing in a cross towards the prolific Steven Fletcher at the far post.
Mancini might want to move forward but, in doing so, he should not ignore some dependable stalwarts. (© The Daily Telegraph).
Man City v Sunderland,
Live, Sky Sports 2, 12.45.
Newcastle United v Man United,
Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, 4.0