Louis van Gaal has endured the worst possible start for Manchester United in its 28-year history, as the English giants lie at a dismal 10th position after 10 games this season. Sadly, after a hefty summer signing spree, United's defensive woes have rocked van Gaal's start at the club. Long term injuries, suspensions and an absence of partnership in the middle, have made the defence look shaky and leaky at the same time.
With Sunday's 0-1 derby loss against rivals Manchester City at the Etihad, United are in a desperate situation defensively. New recruit Marcos Rojo suffered a dislocated shoulder and is expected to be on the sidelines for a long time. His partner Chris Smalling picked up a red card after being cautioned twice, and is set to miss this weekend's clash against Crystal Palace.
The scenario then presented a makeshift situation, where Michael Carrick and teenager Paddy Mcnair took over the defensive duties centrally. With right back Rafael already missing the squad sheet altogether, winger Antonio Valencia had to fill in the void against City in the derby that is a costly affair. But what lies ahead will also be a very tough road. United need to finish in the top four and so far that looks a distant possibility with the crisis they are facing defensively.
For the weekend's Premier League game against Crystal Palace, United have academy graduates Paddy Mcnair and Tyler Blackett as the only fit and available central defenders. The youngsters have performed well under pressure, but playing both of them together, is something van Gaal will ponder about.
Midfielder Carrick, who played his first match of the new season on Sunday, looked impressive in the defensive role. Having played in the position a number of times under former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Carrick may get the nod ahead of Blackett only for experience's sake. For a team fighting for a top four position in the league, this comes as a massive blow.
Leaders Chelsea have enjoyed a successful injury-free partnership in central defence. Gary Cahill and John Terry have played together in all of the ten games for Jose Mourinho's side so far. That has paid huge dividends for the Blues. High flying Southampton, who too haven't had any defensive woes through injury have benefited themselves largely. The Saints have conceded only five goals this season with the team enjoying six successive clean-sheets.
United, meanwhile, have played with new combinations in every single game. That has contributed largely in a growing imbalance that is costing them dearly. They have just had two clean sheets this season. For Louis van Gaal, keeping the defenders fit serves as the biggest challenge in this season.
United's trio of Phil Jones, Johnny Evans and Chris Smalling have been sidelined frequently through injury and that has been a big problem. Johnny Evans, who started the season alongside Tyler Blackett centrally, injured his knee against Leicester in September and since then hasn't made a return. The Northern Irishman has had a dismal time at the club in his career with injuries.
Phil Jones too has had a bad injury record in his three-year tenure at United. The former Blackburn defender, who is suffering from shin splints, is a particular concern for manager Louis van Gaal. The England international player has only made one appearance since recovering from a hamstring injury that had ruled him out for a month earlier this season. He played his first game in the 2-2 draw against West Brom, before picking up a knock at training prior to the Chelsea game in October 26. Jones missed the key clashes against Chelsea and City and a likely return is unknown.
Same goes for another England international Chris Smalling. The former Fulham player, who played the season's opener against Swansea City, picked up an injury that saw him miss out in crucial matches before making a comeback in the bench against West Brom. He played against Chelsea and started the derby on Sunday before being suspended which means he will not appear against Palace.
The trio comprises the most experienced defenders in United's ranks and was once regarded as the new generation stars to take over from former legends Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. But injuries and lack of form have cost them dearly. What arises next is that their future at the club looks shaky with their unavailability to provide van Gaal much-needed stability.
Academy product Blackett, who started the season appearing in every game, got a suspension against Leicester and since then has made just a single appearance. His batch-mate Paddy McNair, who impressed against Everton and West Ham in October, picked up an injury that forced him out in the next couple of games. He made a comeback against City on Sunday after Marcos Rojo's injury.
Rojo too meanwhile, have had his own share of problems. The 2014 World Cup finalist, who faced visa related problems after his transfer, played in the last four matches for United before picking up an injury in his fifth appearance on Sunday.
Left back Luke Shaw and right back Rafael too have had their share of injuries this season. Both had looked to settle in well, but Rafael has again been sidelined for quite some now and his disappearance against City presents a new concern for the upcoming games.
United's major injury concerns have come in training and the manager will now look to be more careful in the coming days. What United need is a set of fit defenders who can give the Dutchman a series of games together without forcing any change. With all the unpredictability at the back, it serves McNair, Blackett and Smalling (only fit central defenders) a chance to get in regular game time provided injuries and suspensions do not come.
McNair, Blackett and Shaw have a promising future ahead of them but the same cannot be said for their senior defensive colleagues. It's now or never for United's most experienced trio to start afresh and perform, as their manager needs them this season to help the club enjoy a successful campaign. On the other hand, the exit door isn't far off!