RIO FERDINAND has demanded Manchester United sort their defensive problems out before they start to eat away at their season.
Though United's victory over Newcastle allowed them to open up a massive seven-point lead on Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, conceding another three goals at Old Trafford drew more anxious words from Alex Ferguson.
Incredibly, the Red Devils have now conceded 28 goals this season, only five fewer than QPR who are languishing at the foot of the table.
To put that into context, at the half-way point of the campaign, they have now exceeded the number of goals they conceded in three of their most recent title-winning seasons -- 2007, 2008 and 2009.
In all competitions, that figure now stands at 40, during which time they have kept just four clean sheets. In addition, they have now gone behind 16 times, 11 of which have ended in victories.
They are quite shuddering statistics. And everyone in the United camp admits they must be corrected.
"We are concerned," said Ferdinand. "When you are conceding goals at any level you want to put it to a stop.
"This season we have let in far too many goals and we need to change that. We need to make a big effort now to push on. We are in a good position but if we are to maintain where we are, we need to sort ourselves out."
Ferdinand's words were echoed by central defensive colleague Jonny Evans, who feels it is only a matter of time before United finally resolve their defensive issues.
"We know what is going on," he said. "You have to be mentally prepared to defend and want to defend. We've just sort of been concentrating too much on scoring goals. Instead of getting off to good starts, we have killed ourselves a little bit by conceding sloppy goals.
"The good thing is we are scoring, which is the hardest part of football.
"We have been doing that freely so I am sure the more simple part of keeping clean sheets will come."
Evans had an eventful afternoon, becoming the third player this season -- after Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale -- to score at both ends, as well as getting booked for handball.
It is another lesson in the 25-year-old's footballing education as he closes on 150 club appearances.
Evans certainly cuts a far more confident figure than the one who was pitched into top flight combat for United in 2008 when Ferdinand's back problems surfaced.
He has not quite made it into the seniors group for the normal training ground opener of boxes, when Ferguson's squad splits for a keep-ball session, but he is starting to assume the status that could one day see him viewed in a similar light to fellow one-club men Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
And Evans accepts he is starting to assume more responsibility in the Old Trafford fold. "I think so. You have to," he said. "You don't wake up one day and think you have to be more responsible. It just comes.
"As a defender, if you are playing a lot of games for Manchester United and are not taking responsibility, you are going to get found out.
"You try to organise a bit more and gauge what players you need to keep on their toes."
Not that Evans felt able to exert his personality within the dressing room immediately. There is far too much experience around for that.
"There is a difference between coming in and upsetting people," he said. "Some of these lads have been here for many years. You cannot just come in and boss them around."