Liverpool, Man United have the same problem: Neil Humphreys
Lack of defensive cover may prove costly for them in EPL title race
John Stones highlights the problem that both Liverpool and Manchester United share. A centre-back reborn, he may be the difference in the title race.
Stones represents strength in depth at Manchester City, a phoenix-like symbol of a club rising from mid-table obscurity to challenge again.
He's the reliable partner for the main man in central defence. Title chasers rarely win without one.
United do not have a reliable partner for Harry Maguire. Liverpool have neither a main man nor a reliable partner, just a carousel of utility men and malnourished academy kids.
And the price is likely to be paid in the final league standings.
The Reds have conceded more goals (22) than Aston Villa (21) in 10th position, a decent fun fact that pales in comparison to United's defensive misdemeanours.
The erratic Red Devils have fished the ball out of David de Gea's net more than anyone else in the top half - 27 times in fact. The odd freakish result in a surreal season inflated that number, certainly, but title contenders should usually concede fewer goals than relegation candidates.
Down in 15th position, Burnley have shipped only 24 goals.
Apart from looking up and cursing City's dramatic renaissance, United and Liverpool also have brittle back fours in common. Against Sheffield United, the Red Devils offered less solidity than jelly and ice-cream.
Their spine is largely dependent on a damaged Swede.
To his immense credit, Victor Lindelof has pushed through the pain barrier for the past two months, as he manages a back injury first suffered playing on a plastic pitch against AZ Alkmaar in late 2019.
Two games a week are currently beyond Lindelof, forcing Maguire to go through more partners than a Tinder addict.
Ordinarily, Eric Bailly steps up. Unfortunately, Bailly gives the impression that the very act of "stepping up" might trigger a fresh injury. He picked up a knock in training this week, forcing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to pick Axel Tuanzebe.
The 23-year-old hadn't started a game in the English Premier League since October 2019 and it showed. The hesitant centre-back looked like the club mascot had been thrown a jersey and told to run around and hope for the best.
DRAGGED OUT OF POSITION
Tuanzebe disappeared beneath the flight of the cross for Sheffield United's first goal and his positioning for the second resembled a helicopter missing a propeller. He was dragged all over the place.
Indeed, the visitors' winner seemed to pull back the curtain at Old Trafford, revealing not a glittering collection of trophy-hunting wizards, but a number of sweaty men frantically stretching and pulling at things in the hope that something worked.
In fairness, United's calamitous defending wasn't entirely representative of the club's current standing, anymore than their recent table-topping antics were an accurate reflection of their progress.
They are caught somewhere in the middle, rather like de Gea at set-pieces.
If United and Liverpool share a shortage of fit centre-backs, then the Red Devils are all alone when it comes to an alarming unpredictability between the sticks.
Blades manager Chris Wilder didn't need a profound tactical plan at Old Trafford. The direct approach often works against de Gea.
Aim an in-swinging cross towards the six-yard line. Surround de Gea like paparazzi on a red carpet. Get a forward to peel away and nod a header past the stranded Spaniard as he flaps like a drowning seagull.
Solskjaer didn't appreciate the deja vu. United have shipped eight goals from set-pieces this season. Since the start of last season, they have conceded 14 goals from corners, the joint-highest in the EPL.
De Gea's poor distribution also led to the Blades' winner, which underlined the discernible lack of communication at the back.
Empty stadiums pick up everything, but there was only the sound of silence as United took an eternity to break up their opponents' advance and still failed.
Solskjaer can always call upon the indefatigable Maguire. But who can be called upon to stand alongside the United skipper? The defensive uncertainty at Anfield has replicated itself at Old Trafford.
What would either club give to have a resurgent Stones or even an Aymeric Laporte to support a main man like Ruben Dias?
Of course, that would be greedy. That would be Manchester City.
If the rule of three applies to this particular narrative, then Pep Guardiola can expect a happy ending.
Liverpool and United, on the other hand, are a centre-back short of a title challenge.