Neil Humphreys: Defence may be Manchester United’s undoing
Too many soft goals will end Champions League hopes
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer likes to point out that he's a paid-up member of the mythical Manchester United way.
Schooled by Sir Alex Ferguson and a proud graduate of the Class of '99, he just gets the club. He's taking the Red Devils forward by taking them back to the Manchester United way.
But he's not quite there. And he knows it, too.
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After the 2-2 draw against Southampton earlier this week, he lamented United's worst performance since football returned without pointing a finger at the elephant on the pitch. He didn't need to. There were four of them.
Solskjaer had no defence for his back four, so he essentially avoided the subject altogether.
Two soft goals against Southampton revealed his side's tender underbelly once more.
Rather than the swaggering, emerging superstars up front, United's defence will make or break their chase for the Champions League, beginning with an awkward trip to Crystal Palace tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Historically, that has usually been the case.
When rivals brought a top striker, United brought the best centre-back. When opponents sat back in messy contests, United brought a clean sheet. That's the United way.
A resolute defence has always underpinned the success at Old Trafford.
While George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton danced in the mud, Nobby Stiles removed his teeth and then removed the limbs of anyone foolish enough to plot a path around him.
When Ferguson arrived at United, one of his first tasks was to disassemble a back four that occasionally gave the impression that corner-kicks were defended with a pint of beer in each hand.
Eric Cantona's return from suspension and late scoring run famously triggered Kevin Keegan's on-air meltdown and Newcastle United's on-pitch collapse in 1996. But what is less remembered is the number of clean sheets required to make Cantona's miracle happen.
Between January and April 1996, he scored the league winners in five 1-0 victories (there were seven 1-0 wins in total in that period).
Cantona stole the headlines, but only after Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister had pickpocketed opponents at the other end.
The Theatre of Dreams only works when it functions as a bit of nightmare for opposing strikers. Solskjaer hasn't figured this bit out yet, which explains his uncharacteristic grouchiness after the Southampton draw.
At the very least, the Saints' recovery provided a useful service in blowing away the smokescreen that had hung in the air for months.
A run of 18 unbeaten games makes for quite a smokescreen, especially when 58 goals have come from the explosive trio of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
But the scrappy draw was a more accurate reflection of a side with one of the worst defensive records in the top seven, encapsulating the persistent weaknesses within the back four.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was the best of the bunch, but his explosive pace was largely neutered as he retreated to support his teammates.
Victor Lindelof ended up on the wrong side of his opponent when Southampton scored their equaliser, an unwanted reminder of his tendency to make rash decisions and get bullied in the box.
Harry Maguire lost his marker at the back post when Southampton went ahead, continuing a worrying trend that has already benefited Tottenham Hotspur's Steven Bergwijn and Bournemouth's Junior Stanislas.
Too many forwards make a fool of him.
Maguire remains the best defender at the club, but he hasn't imposed himself on the team or dominated United's defensive play like Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool.
And lastly, Luke Shaw got injured against Southampton.
Shaw's replacement, Brandon Williams, also went off with a head injury, leaving Solskjaer without a natural left-back to face Palace.
Fatigue is also a factor. For the Southampton game, Solskjaer selected the same starting XI for the fifth league game in a row - which hasn't happened at United since 1993.
Obviously, an unbeaten run builds momentum, but a cursory glance at the Red Devils' bench suggests Solskjaer's line-ups are being picked out of necessity, rather than choice.
United may boast a front three that have so far outscored the strike force at Liverpool, but the Reds have a title-winning back four.
With Manchester City's Uefa ban reversed, Solskjaer is now left with just two routes to the Champions League - finish fourth or win the Europa League.
Both offer the prospect of a few sleepless nights if United cannot rely on the priceless luxury of clean sheets.