Nemanja Vidic has told his team-mates to cut out the defensive lapses that are wrecking their Premier League title campaign.
Defeats for Chelsea and Arsenal on Saturday should have been the start of a perfect weekend for United, who would have moved to within a point of Carlo Ancelotti’s men if they had beaten Bolton at the Reebok Stadium yesterday.
Instead, the problems which are proving so difficult to eradicate reared their heads again.
A combination of slack marking by Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra moving away from the post he was supposed to be defending allowed Zat Knight to put Bolton ahead.
Then, after Nani had scored a brilliant equaliser, the visitors offered Martin Petrov far too much room to exhibit his talents as he cut inside Park Ji-sung to drive a second goal beyond Edwin van der Sar.
In the end, United were lucky to have the chance of settling for a point given Johan Elmander
blasted a brilliant opportunity over the bar which surely would have given Bolton victory.
Yet, while Michael Owen’s third goal in a week ensured United did not make the short journey back down the M61 empty-handed, the brutal truth is that they have now conceded nine goals in five Premier League games.
Even basement boys Everton have done better than that, while Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are still to record an away win in three attempts.
“It is a big concern that we are conceding so many away goals,” said Vidic.
“We have to stop doing it. We cannot let it happen again.”
It hardly seems believable that the same defenders responsible for the present malaise should concede just 22 and 24 goals respectively during the entire Premier League title-winning campaigns of 2008 and 2009.
Rio Ferdinand’s absence is clearly not helping but the England skipper was also missing when United went 14 games without conceding a goal during the mid-winter of the 2008-09 campaign that also included a trip to Japan for the Club World Cup.
As the man who now wears the captain’s armband, Vidic feels the responsibility more than most.
“Over the last few years we haven’t given that many goals away or even allowed them so many chances,” he said.
“Before we have always looked strong, so this is not what we are used to.
“We have to play much better in our away games.”
As United go to Valencia on Wednesday needing to breathe fresh life into their Champions League campaign before visiting Sunderland on Saturday, the need for improvement is immediate.
Ferdinand is expected to be back for the Spain trip, which Ferguson felt was sufficiently important to miss last week’s Carling Cup tie against Scunthorpe in order to go on a spying mission.
With three successive goalless draws in Spain to look back on, including the 2008 semi-final against Barcelona, United do have memories of defensive solidity to fall back on, even if it goes against Ferguson’s belief that victory is essential.
In addition to getting things right at the back, Ferguson must also decide what to do with Wayne Rooney.
The United boss may not have taken too kindly to Kevin Keegan’s comments but they were given with the benefit of having been the marquee player of his era.
Few can understand the pressures Rooney has to operate under. However, as a former England captain and manager, Keegan has more of an idea than most.
The problem for Ferguson is a balance between keeping faith with a player who was so outstanding last season and getting the most from a team for whom Rooney is current third on the list of in-form strikers, behind Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen.
Antonio Valencia’s long-term injury and a rather shorter two-week absence for Ryan Giggs also deny Ferguson the option of using Rooney as a lone striker flanked by two quick wingers, as he did so effectively last term.
Given Ferguson’s assistant Mike Phelan yesterday revealed Rooney was still troubled by an ankle complaint, there must be an argument for giving the 24-year-old a complete break to give his body and mind a chance to recover from the physical and emotional trauma he has been through recently.