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Lee Dixon's tactical view

Lee Dixon
By Lee Dixon
Match of the Day 2 pundit

Over the years we have become accustomed to seeing a free-flowing Manchester United team, but the present side seems to have morphed into a completely different animal.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been a bit off the boil and they have managed just 16 goals in their last 12 league games, but they have become a team capable of grinding out results.

Since Samir Nasri scored against them in Arsenal's victory in November, they have gone on a record run of 13 consecutive top-flight clean sheets and 1,212 minutes without conceding a goal.

Victory over West Ham gave them their eighth Premier League win in a row - six of them finishing 1-0. Does that remind you of anyone?

Man Utd keeper Edwin van der Sar (right) with midfielder Michael Carrick
Carrick (left) has started 11 of the games in Man Utd's run and came off the bench in the other two
It is hard to say how good they are compared to the defence I played in at Arsenal. That is for other people to judge, but I have to say I have been hugely impressed.

The goalkeeper and the back four will get all the credit but the first thing you have to say is it is a group effort - all good teams defend all the way through the side.

This United group shows an amazing desire not to give anything away and to get the ball back when they lose it.

Their midfield work unbelievably hard. They track back, they tackle from behind and the number of times they are able to pinch the ball away from an attacker is uncanny.

It makes it so much easier for defenders when you do not have to engage forwards. When midfielders get back to disrupt attacking players - whether it is getting a foot on the ball, slowing up their runs or rushing them into a decision - it means the defence's job is almost done for them.

Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick all worked their socks off to help out their defence against West Ham. Even their attackers do it, with Carlos Tevez playing his part in Sunday's win at Upton Park.

From the first minute of the game we saw how important Carrick is to United. Rafael made a mistake and found himself caught out of position, but straight away Carrick was over to cover the full-back area and Hammers forward Carlton Cole was crowded out.

When I was at Arsenal we had a saying that the 18-yard line was there for a reason. As a defence we would never retreat further than the edge of our box unless we really had to.

It definitely worked for us - the longer you can stay out of your own area the better.

You cannot always do it, if a team plays the ball out wide and gets to the line you might have to, but if your opposition attacks centrally then the majority of the time you can hold your line.

If a striker makes a move into the box most of the time you can just let him go. If the defence does its job then the striker will be offside nine times out of 10.

You obviously have to be very careful but you learn when to let him go and when to track him. It comes from years of knowing what is a good run and what is a silly run and we used to work on it time and time again in training.

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It is not a case of gambling, it is very calculated decision-making and the way United have adapted shows what great defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are.

The back four all hold their line and Vidic and Ferdinand know exactly when to drop off and precisely when to push up.

It was funny seeing Vidic at one stage jogging back, watching his man and accidentally straying into his own box. It was like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff face the way he then reacted and moved back to the other side of the line.

That sort of defensive discipline really reminded me of the old Arsenal back four.

One surprising aspect of United's run is how they have continued while having to deal with injuries to several key players.

Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Patrice Evra have all had spells on the sidelines and the likes of Jonny Evans, Rafael and John O'Shea have just slotted in and are thriving off Vidic and all of his experience.

The way they have mixed seasoned professionals with young players just goes to show what an educated football club they are.

Number of starts in United's 13-game run:
Van der Sar - 13
Vidic - 13
O'Shea - 10
Ferdinand - 7
Rafael - 6
Evans - 6
Neville - 5
Evra - 5
The likes of Rafael and Evans are only going to get better as they are learning from two great centre-halves in Ferdinand and Vidic, who are probably the best in the league at the moment.

Ashley Cole had his struggles defensively when he first came into the Arsenal team, but playing alongside the likes of Tony Adams is a very good place to have your apprenticeship.

Finding quality defenders is difficult these days - as Arsenal have discovered - and I have mentioned before about the lost art of defending, but Manchester United are proving me wrong.

They are really clicking and when that happens it drives fear into their opposition.

It becomes a mental issue for teams. We would win a lot of games 1-0 but it was something our opponents probably thought about more than us. All it took was for Ian Wright to nick a goal and we knew we would have a good chance of winning the game. Other teams knew that just as well.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is an attack-minded coach at heart, but when you go on a run like they are it becomes infectious. They will want to protect their record and send a message out to the rest of the Premier League.

The goals will eventually return for United and if they can combine that with such defensive resistance then it is a scary prospect for the rest of the league.

Lee Dixon was speaking to BBC Sport's Andrew McKenzie

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see also
West Ham 0-1 Man Utd
08 Feb 09 |  Premier League
Ferguson calm after vital victory
08 Feb 09 |  Premier League
Premier League as it happened
08 Feb 09 |  Premier League
Sunday's football photos
08 Feb 09 |  Football
Ferguson and Vidic secure awards
06 Feb 09 |  Premier League

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