Winning, the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson insisted after his side's 2-1 victory over Liverpool, is all that matters. United still stands seven points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table and, from Ferguson's point of view, another potentially awkward game has been ticked off. Yet he must be aware, beneath his satisfaction at the result, that there was something unsettling about the final half hour.
In the first half, United was exceptional, helped perhaps by Liverpool's timorousness. It passed crisply and cleanly, created chances and could easily have been 2-0 or 3-0 up by half-time. Shinji Kagawa set the tempo from the left, Tom Cleverley was constantly involved, Danny Welbeck passed and moved with great intelligence and Robin van Persie was as threatening as ever, his half-run and stop to get away from Daniel Agger before his goal as good an example of finding space as there could be.
"It was as good a performance as we have had for a long time and we should have been three or four up but when they got their goal they got inspired by it," Ferguson said.
And yet the result remains somehow unconvincing. This is a United team that continues to do just enough -- but regularly exposes its soft underbelly. When Nemanja Vidic fortuitously headed United into a two-goal lead 10 minutes after half-time, the game seemed done. For the great United sides of the past it would have been. Yet Liverpool, having offered next to nothing until then, somehow found a way back into the game.
The goal Daniel Sturridge scored was symptomatic of United's woes. A simple lay off from Raheem Sterling was enough to create space for Steven Gerrard to shoot. David De Gea got down comfortably enough to his drive but rather than holding it or pushing the ball out of the danger area he parried it weakly to Sturridge as Rafael, not for the first time, failed to react quickly enough to the rebound. "It looked a bit soft," Ferguson said. "Once again the keeper has parried one out and nobody is following in the rebound."
From most people that would simply have been an accurate summation; from Ferguson, who criticizes his players publicly, it seemed like something more, an expression of frustration at more fallible goalkeeping and defending that, while not calamitous, just wasn't as sharp as it ought to be.
"It lifted them," Ferguson said. "Some of our defending after that was a bit erratic and even desperate at times. But we managed to get through it. The last three or four minutes they were shoving players into the box and there was some interchange play we had to deal with. The name of the game is winning. There are moments where you have to defend. Today was one of them."
There's some truth to that, but also a level of disingenuousness. There are games in which a team has to defend but not usually when it's 2-0 up and cruising. The sloppiness has become endemic and while United may get away with it domestically, it is a concern ahead of the meeting with Real Madrid in the Champions League next month.
In 2000, United lost 3-2 at home to Real Madrid in the quarter-final of the Champions League having drawn 0-0 away. It was a game that promoted a radical change in Ferguson's approach as he eschewed the free-flowing, high-risk football of the previous decade for something much cagier. Put simply, he accepted that having 20 chances and allowing the opposition five would lead to a lot of comfortable wins but also the occasional 1-0 defeat; instead his policy became to restrict the opposition and hope that generating six or seven chances would be enough for his own side.
This season there seems to have been a reversion. As in 1998-99, when United won the Treble on the back of a series of improbable fightbacks and late goals, it keeps going behind and keeps coming back. Some would praise United for its character in doing so - understandably and rightly so - but it's equally valid to ask why a side of its quality goes behind so often. This was the flip side of that: taking the lead and then jeopardizing that advantage with a lack of concentration and discipline. In fact, had Sturridge not fired over in the final minutes when he had half the goal to aim at, Liverpool could have snatched a draw.
In part, the issue is self-inflicted, given Ferguson's apparent reluctance to sign the sort of dynamic midfielder United has lacked since Darren Fletcher fell ill. But equally he must look at his goalkeeper and back four and wonder how players of such talent can make so many individual errors.
A seven-point lead is probably enough for United to hang on and win the title but so long as that vulnerability is evident, City will feel it has a chance. As last season proved, when City closed an eight-point gap with six games left, this is not the ruthless United of old.