Man United's absurd season continues

Posted by Mark Payne

Robin van Persie failed to hit the target after robbing Adam Federici of the ballGettyImagesRobin van Persie failed to hit the target after robbing Adam Federici of the ball

When will this blizzard of anarchy end? Sir Alex Ferguson described watching this match's defending as "agony". Once again, Manchester United failed to keep a clean sheet, delivering their worst defensive performance of the season in the process. Once again, they outscored their opponents. Once again, large parts of the match were poor.

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This weekend’s game wasn't all about United’s foibles though. Reading are accustomed to scoring at home against big sides, just ask Arsenal, and played as if they fancied their chances. They knew to target United’s defence, and did so ruthlessly. Two of their goals came from simple corners and Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans just took turns in shouting at each other.

If United have a defender worthy of the name in this most ludicrous of seasons it is Rafael. He was hooked after the thirty minutes here. The reason given by the manager was a need for Chris Smalling’s height. After the concession of two headed goals that seemed to make sense. However, it said much that Rafael was on a yellow and losing his head. A match with Manchester City looms next weekend and Fergie threatened to play himself in defence next week. Rafael is the preferred option and he should view his substitution here as a compliment.

A large part of United’s carousel of defensive line-ups is the current campaign’s injury crisis. At Old Trafford, having a cluster of players sidelined is an annual tradition now and certain questions need answers. Does the medical team need an overhaul? Are the players being pushed too hard in training? Do United play substantially more fixtures than their rivals in a year? In every year for the past five seasons, for substantial periods, it seems as though Manchester United have had more injuries than their rivals.

Two of those returning from long term injury this time around were on the field at the Madejski Stadium. Neither Darren Fletcher nor Phil Jones covered themselves in glory. There is an argument to say Fletcher has altered his game somewhat, and it was certainly emotional when he scored last week. Phil Jones simply looked off the pace. He began last season like a juggernaut but looked a long way from that player this weekend. These two are the best tacklers at the club and need to find form. Fast.

United are a strange beast right now. An animal with a muscular imposing upper body and a limp and vulnerable undercarriage. There is no balance and the defenders just haven't gelled. These things take time, whether they can win the league in the meantime, I’m not sure. It seems inevitable the first decent side they meet in Europe will dismember them.

The second half of this match was unbearably tense, Reading always looked capable of scoring again. You can’t take your eyes off Manchester United this season. Even in games where the result seems nailed on, they are capable of doing something sublime, ridiculous, or downright frightening. The upcoming match against Cluj in the Champions’ League looks like a dead rubber at first glance. But we’d all be fools to miss it.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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