Football: Defence remains a hindrance to Manchester United's progress

Manchester United's Radamel Falcao (centre) is challenged by Stoke City's Erik Pieters (left) and Marc Muniesa during their English Premier League soccer match at the Britannia Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent, central England Jan 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Manchester United's Radamel Falcao (centre) is challenged by Stoke City's Erik Pieters (left) and Marc Muniesa during their English Premier League soccer match at the Britannia Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent, central England Jan 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal says he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from fans even after defeats but, if he does not act to strengthen his defence, he might soon find their patience running out.

After a dire opening to the season, Van Gaal has steadied the ship and Thursday's 1-1 Premier League draw at Stoke City made it 10 games in a row without defeat.

They are firmly established in third place and though the title looks a step too far, a return to the Champions League is very much within their grasp.

However, the upward trajectory cannot disguise the continuing problem at the back, which was on show again at the Britannia Stadium on Thursday.

Van Gaal opted to go with a back three of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Chris Jones, all of whom have struggled this season, and none of them looked convincing in one of the league's most demanding fixtures.

Many centre backs struggle to deal with Peter Crouch but the giant Stoke forward was in dominant form on Thursday, setting up an unmarked Ryan Shawcross for Stoke's opener after two minutes, hitting a post and forcing a handball by Smalling that could well have been given as a penalty.

In a fierce swirling wind it was a day for no-nonsense defending but the three of them continually let long balls bounce dangerously, and Evans almost paid a heavy price for doing just that when he was dispossessed by Mame Diouf who then shot wide.

Radamel Falcao earned United a point with a 26th-minute equaliser but they offered little else in collecting their third draw in four games and Van Gaal accepted their had been problems.

"We didn't deserve any more than a draw. They were closer to a winning goal than us. We have seen how difficult it is to defend long balls, both here and in the home game against Stoke," the Dutchman told Sky Sports.

"We know that is happening (Stoke's set-plays). We have had two meetings about that. We knew Peter Crouch was heading the ball to a second player, who was totally free. That was very bad. But, it was good that we kept the spirit and equalised.

"We have to play better in away matches. We have to do better."