Man United need to tighten up at the back or they may be forced to watch neighbours Man City lift the Premier League trophy again, according to Sir Alex Ferguson.
The Red Devils conceded three at Reading in the first 23 minutes of a thrilling 4-3 win, have kept just three clean sheets all season and have now been forced to come from behind nine times in their past 13 Premier League matches.
Despite this, they remain top of the table, but it's been enough to alarm the most experienced manager in the business. "It was the worst defending of this season," said Fergie, having called on his team to tighten up before their trip to the Madejski. "We need to do something about it."
Or do they? There is a precedent for United winning the Premier League title despite a leaky defence. Back in the 1999/00 campaign, the Red Devils shipped 45 goals en route to winning the league, the most conceded by any side to finish first since the Premier League breakaway in 1992, and the parallels between that season's defensive performance and this one so far can be seen…
How Man United have performed after 15 games of the 2012/13 season:
How Man United performed after 15 games of the 1999/00 season:
The current United side may have conceded one more goal than the 1999/00 vintage, but are seemingly in a better position at this stage of the season, being three points clear and three points better off, with a goal difference one better, too.
If United continue to ship goals at their present rate (1.4 per game), they would concede around a dismal 52 goals by the end of the season and would probably have to score close to 100 goals to stay top (the Premier League record is 103, scored by Chelsea in 2009/10). On the attacking front, that is exactly what they did in 1999/2000.
How to win the Premier League with a leaky defence
Back in 1999, confidence at Old Trafford was sky high having just won the treble in dramatic fashion. As with this season, the 1999/00 team could not find a way past Everton in their opening match, drawing with the Toffees (whereas they lost at Goodison in 2012). Four clean sheets and fantastic away victories against Arsenal and Liverpool, however, helped them climb to top spot after 15 matches, despite losing away to Tottenham and being hammered 5-0 at Chelsea.
Key games in the first 15 fixtures of 1999/2000:
Man United 2-0 Leeds (14 August 1999 - third game)
Arsenal 1-2 Man United (22 August 1999 - fourth game)
Liverpool 2-3 Man United (11 September 1999 - seventh game)
How the Premier League table looked at the end of the 1999/00 season:
Despite conceding 45 goals - an average of 1.18 a game - Fergie's 1999/00 team blew the opposition away, scoring 97 goals (2.55 a game), losing just once after 23 October and wrapping up the title with four games left to play, an incredible 18 points clear of Arsenal in second.
As with the current team, United boasted a formidable attack in 1999/00, with Andy Cole (19 goals), Dwight Yorke (20), Teddy Sheringham (five) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (12) available for Sir Alex to call upon, while Paul Scholes (nine goals), Roy Keane (five), David Beckham (six) and Ryan Giggs (six) all contributed that season.
United's defensive problems in 1999/00, similar to the present day, arguably stemmed from uncertainty surrounding their goalkeeper. The loss of goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who left the club after the treble success, led to his replacement by Mark Bosnich, but the Australian failed to convince and Italian Massimo Taibi was drafted in. Taibi's stint in goal was infamously calamitous and Bosnich was bombed out after just one season. That said, United had conceded 37 in the league during the treble season with Schmeichel in goal, so it might be that the club's thrilling, attacking style was also partially to blame.
Why it will be tougher to win the title in 2012/13 than it was in 1999/00
While the Red Devils were ultra-confident in 1999 after their unprecedented treble, rivals Arsenal were still smarting from being pipped at the death by United in the league and FA Cup months earlier. Fergie's team took that swagger into their early meeting with the Gunners and emerged with three points from Highbury, laying down an imperious early marker.
This time round, however, rather than United, it is their closest rivals Manchester City that have been buoyed by recent dramatic success, having snatched the title from Old Trafford in the dying seconds of last season. Indeed, City have made a habit of grabbing the kind of late victories that have been a United trademark. Mancini's men are extremely difficult to beat in the Premier League, suggesting they will put up a much better fight than Arsenal, Leeds and the rest did 13 years ago, making the first Manchester derby of the season on 9 December a huge match.
Whatever happens, it's a safe bet the 2013 champions won't be as bad defensively as the top dogs in English football were in 1936. The First Division champions that season, Sunderland, had a dodgy defence that conceded 74 goals in 42 games (see below), en route to finishing first in 1935/36, which remains a record for goals conceded by the champions in English football's top flight. They did score 109 goals, mind you, and how Fergie would love his team to come close to that statistic.
Do you think Man United can win the Premier League defending as badly as they have done so far this season? Share your thoughts, below…