It is regularly said in defense of David Moyes that no manager would have been able to succeed in the enormous shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes, it has been argued, inherited an old squad, and an average one.
The deficiencies were plain to see and exacerbated by the club's failure to sign the midfielder it so desperately needed – with Marouane Fellaini unable, incapable even, of living up to his hefty price tag. Injuries, specifically the absence of last season's top scorer Robin van Persie, have also played their part in Manchester United's limp concession of their title.
But Sunday's 3-1 defeat to Chelsea had little to do with United's bungled transfer dealings or injury-hit strike force. Rather, it was a loss that owed much to a creaking, disorganized defense that betrayed Moyes' reputation for prudence and opened up just as his side was hinting at causing Jose Mourinho's team problems. Nemanja Vidic and Rafael's reckless, mindless late fouls at the end of the game, summed it all up.
Both first-half goals featured a catalog of errors. Jonny Evans sent a clearance only as far as Samuel Eto'o, who was granted the freedom of Stamford Bridge to stroll toward goal before belatedly being closed down as he curled a shot toward the top corner.
Chelsea climbed back to within two points of leaders Arsenal with a victory that was as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests. United began brightly but were completely flattened by the first goal of Eto's hat trick and did not recover until Jose Mourinho decided to shut up shop with 20 minutes to go.
Had the Special One been more ruthless, or positive, United could have been humiliated, but it was still a fairly humbling experience for Moyes and his team. The best they can surely hope for is fourth place, while Chelsea is setting its sights on top spot and the Premier League crown.
For the Cameroonian's second, he was able to lose his marker far too easily – devoid of pressure and in a bewildering amount of space in the six-yard box so soon after a corner – while the ease with which Ramires split a packed penalty area with an admittedly excellent through ball for Gary Cahill could scarcely have reflected worse on a side caught flat-footed and ball-watching.
The same Chelsea center back, hardly an elusive figure at six-foot-two-inches, lost Evans and the United defense a second time to power a header at goal which was pushed into the path of Eto'o – bewilderingly played onside by Antonio Valencia – for the revitalized forward's hat trick goal.
“We got a bit unlucky with the first goal, it took a deflection,” Moyes said after. “But the other two came from set pieces, and that's our own fault, that nobody else's fault. That's us. It was terrible defending on the first goal and just as bad for [the second].”
United was a shambles at the back, and the disorder that followed late with Vidic flying in late on Eden Hazard to receive a red card before Rafael dived into a two-footed challenge that should have seen him follow the Serbian down the tunnel summed up an afternoon in which the away side lost its composure and cool.
United has now lost seven Premier League matches – incredibly, it has lost that many times in only two of the previous 10 seasons, and there is still almost half a season left to play. The side, which built its title charge last season on a solid, dependable defense, has conceded 14 goals in its last 11 league outings, conceding as many goals on the road this season as relegation contenders Sunderland and Crystal Palace.
The contrast with Chelsea's back line was stark. Here was a side that, not so long ago, could ship goals against the training ground dummies, according to Mourinho, but has now let in just two in its last six league games and kept four clean sheets.
For Moyes, it is another match that has produced more problems than solutions, the latest of which being the need to overhaul and rebuild a defense that is incapable of defending a title.
In the 10 league games up to and including its title-clinching victory against Aston Villa last season, the side recorded eight clean sheets. It has managed only six in the first 22 games of this campaign. The cause of that rot is not hard to understand, with United's older guard living on past glories – and perhaps Sir Alex's swan song was as much theirs as his – while the next generation has yet to deliver.
Vidic, no longer the force he once was, looks set to leave the club at the end of the season, with his agent ruling out an extension to his current deal which expires later this year. Rio Ferdinand has made just one league appearance since September, routinely left out of the matchday squad – as he was today – and also likely to leave Old Trafford at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Evans struggled against Chelsea's speed and urgency on transition and has failed to reach the standards he hit last season, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have yet to graduate from useful utility men – the latter's long-term role is seen at center back, though deficiencies in midfield have limited his chances to play there.
Moyes, noted for the solidity he brought to Everton for a decade, has struggled to impose those same ideals at United. Under greater pressure to attack, control games and score goals, his side looks too open, too easily exposed. Yet, interest in Benfica's Ezequiel Garay and a recent scouting trip to see Cagliari's Davide Astori shows the Scot sees a need to add fresh blood to the defense, that work on the training ground will not sufficiently improve an out-of-sorts back four.
Another match, another reason for pessimism around Old Trafford as yet another shortcoming is added to list of deficiencies Moyes must contend with and solve. Regardless of the return of Rooney and Van Persie, or the addition of a midfielder, United must cure a porous and ill-disciplined defense or risk continuing to be undermined.