As Manchester United celebrate their 20th league title following their 3-0 victory against Aston Villa on Monday, the importance of Rio Ferdinand to their success this season cannot be understated. Playing in almost three quarters of their Premier League fixtures, despite his long term back problems, the 34 year old Englishman has proven that he has plenty more left in the tank. Read more…
Centre back, defensive centre midfielder, centre midfielder, attacking centre midfielder. Centre something. That seems to be the priority at Manchester United. A few weeks ago, we needed a centre midfielder; today, according to various reports, we are in need of a centre back.
Whilst both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have enjoyed a rather successful season, it is fair to assume that their time at the club is limited. Add to this the fact that Phil Jones seems to be in the process of being moulded as a defensive midfielder, used primarily to shadow and hassle key men in the opposition’s team, it is understandable that a certain doubt has been cast over the strength of Manchester United’s defensive core.
Once the two experienced centre backs decide to call it a day, Manchester United will be left with only two out and out possible starting central defenders: Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans. If you are a regular visitor to this website, you will know that I am yet to be entirely convinced by Chris Smalling and believe that he will only ever be a squad player at Manchester United. Again, as I have also previously stated, I hope he proves me wrong and establishes himself as a great centre-back for the club, but until that day comes, I believe that yes, another centre-back will need to be purchased to replace the two departing veterans; perhaps not this summer, but most definitely the next if they want to remain Premier League favourites. At the moment, United are odds on favourites to reclaim their title with Ladbrokes at whopping 1/200.
The only question is who? Who out there is cheap enough not to break the bank, but good enough to directly fill the big boots of his predecessors? The answer is: there aren’t many.
Kurt Zouma (Saint-Etienne)
If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I am a huge fan of the imposing youngster. I (fairly) recently wrote an article on him for this website, which you can read here. As stated in said article, I do not believe Kurt Zouma to be entirely ready to make the jump to a starting position in the Premier League. On the other hand, if purchased early and perhaps sent out on loan to gain some experience at another British club for a season or so (coincidentally just around the time a new centre back will be needed), Kurt has the potential to establish himself as one of the great centre backs of his generation.
Nicolas N’Koulou (Olympique de Marseille)
As a defender, Nicolas N’Koulou nearly has it all. He has the pace, the strength, the concentration and the positioning. His only weakness (and even then, he’s not half bad) is his aerial ability. Extremely capable with the ball at his feet, Nicolas isn’t one to shy away from running out of defence and picking out a good pass to one of his teammates further up the pitch. With teams nowadays relying more and more on versatility and ball ability, Nicolas N’Koulou would be an asset to the majority of big teams around Europe and with a reported price tag of £8 million, it is understandable why many teams have already expressed their interest in a player who, were he not playing for a Ligue 1 club, would be valued at around £20 million.
Dedé (Vasco de Gama)
When it comes to the Brazilian league, my knowledge is fairly limited. I know of players, yet I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable describing their strengths and weaknesses as I only catch one or two games a term. I know Dedé to be a talented centre back but I would much rather let @CheGiaevara, someone who has seen a lot of the big Brazilian, describe him for this article:
“Dedé is a freak of nature. At six feet three inches, with the body of a supreme athlete and the ability to dominate his opponent, he strikes fear in the hearts of attacks everywhere. The general tradition of fullbacks attacking has moulded Dedé into covering the space they leave as well as covering his own. He outmuscles, outruns and often outsmarts his opponent, including one fellow by the name of Neymar. Dedé’s tempo and pace often covers up his lack of positional skills, which could become a problem in the Premier League (see David Luiz). However, he posses the power to move the ball out of the defense, in which he has earned the original nickname “Dedéckenbauer” by the Vasco da Gama faithful.”
Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund)
As you can see, options are running a bit low, yet Hummels isn’t exactly an impossible target. Admittedly, he has recently signed a new contract until 2017 with Borussia Dortmund but Thiago Silva did so with AC Milan a few weeks before signing for Paris Saint-Germain. Manchester United were linked with the German defender around November last year and since then, Barcelona have been the latest club to be linked with the German rock. Still only aged 24 and with 24 caps under his belt for Germany already, Hummels has the ability to be one of the first names on any team sheet around the world. A price tag of over £30 million may be required to acquire his services but as Manchester United saw with Rio Ferdinand, great quality generally comes at a high price.
I recently read an old article on TalkSport, similar to this one, linking Manchester United with the likes of Sergio Ramos and Giorgio Chiellini. Whilst I, along with a vast majority of Manchester United fans, would love to see players of their ability at the club, their price tag would be exorbitant. Even Hummels is more of a wish than a realistic target.
Are there any other defenders I may have missed whom you believe would be an adequate fit to replace Rio and Vidic, all the while consolidating our back line? If so, feel free to leave you suggestions in the comment box below.
Despite always being a prodigiously talented home-grown centre half, it is only recently that Jonny Evans has finally got the last few doubters off his back after a succession of simply world-class performances. A rock at the heart of Manchester United’s defence during this calendar year, Evans is now legitimately (during Vidic’s recovery from injury) United’s first choice defender.
Commonly labelled a liability in the past and unfairly blamed for United’s 6-1 humbling against City, the Northern Irishman is now showing a confidence and maturity that few suspected he was capable of. Alongside any of Vidic, Ferdinand, Smalling or Jones, Evans has shown himself to be a versatile defender equally capable of dealing with balls in front of him and, unlike John Terry and Nemanja Vidic, behind him. Like Kompany and Ferdinand, Evans is an intelligent defender who has great athleticism and reads play well as shown by the infrequency of fouls that he commits nowadays (even though there is an element of fortune in it- like all impressive stats).
Whisper it quietly, but under the radar of RvP-mania a resurgence has taken place. The real Patrice Evra is back.
Some would argue he never left us, certainly the decline of Evra has been exaggerated in line with his status of favourite whipping boy since Carrick and Evans played their way out of ignominy. Tactics seemed ill-suited to his ageing legs, leaving him exposed with little support from those stationed in front of him. Most United fans would still agree however that the displays of the French full back between 2010 and 2012 have been less consistent and increasingly erratic.
What a difference a couple of months make. The stand-in skipper will always have his critics, but undeniably his performances in recent weeks have been his best since 2009. An intimidating list of opponents blessed with pace (Walcott and Sterling) or craft (Ben Arfa, Mata) were expected to finish him off. Indeed those too quick to judge even ludicrously called for Buttner to keep the shirt on the back of a goal against Wigan. The reality was each opponent was either contained or forced to move elsewhere to inflict any damage. Much has rightly been made of the performances of Rafael yet his fellow full back has posted virtually identical stats for tackles and interceptions per game. In fact considering he is a full back, it is remarkable that six players have been dribbled past more often than a player facing a winger on a weekly basis.
Not only has Evra been defensively sound but despite a revolving door of players in front of him his link up play going forward has been excellent. He has been involved in much of United’s enterprise in attack, providing a constant wide option and even emerging as an unlikely aerial assassin with a brace of important headed goals. His successful dribbles per game rank behind only Valencia, Nani and Cleverley at the club demonstrating the incisive qualities he is bringing to our free scoring side. Not only that but you can rely on Evra to provide more key passes in a game than Carrick, Cleverley and even Paul Scholes.
If Patrice can continue to show the form that had the Qatar Foundation sponsored Barcelona and Bwin sponsored Real Madrid hovering a few seasons ago, the odds of United retaining the Premier League title will certainly increase. The presence of a genuinely world class left back instantly increases the chances of Manchester United taking the title back at the first time of asking and may even encourage a few punters to put some money on it happening.
Does this mean speculation over his successor can be put off for the foreseeable future? Perhaps not. Only time will tell if Evra is experiencing an Indian summer, or something more permanent. Age is the enemy of athletes reliant on pace and stamina. There is something special when a former champion recovers from being written off to scale the heights again (think Roger Federer or even Rocky Balboa!) If we are seeing the last courageous act from a superb club servant credit must be given to the indomitable Frenchman who never ducks a challenge.
For many reasons 2011/12 was the most difficult season of Patrice Evra’s career; how fantastic to see him back on top.
People are drawn to characters. Whether they are outrageous, mysterious or commanding. If they exude a unique charisma, they catch people’s attention. Whether this popularity equates to footballing talent remains to be seen as Manchester United’s new Dutch left sided enigma finds his feet in the Premier League.
When news broke that Manchester United had signed Alexander Büttner, it trigged a universal scratch of the head. Even the wisest football mind threw in the towel over their lack of knowledge of this seemingly enthusiastic new acquisition. Once the protagonist himself started posting photos of his new training gear, at his new club, it seemed even more bizarre. To top that off; he looked like someone who shouldn’t even be playing football. It could be the haircut, it could be the thuggish grin he naturally puts on or it could be the tattoos.
In fact, his demeanour is best described by the man himself when talking about his performances in the Dutch domestic league;
“I played against the best wingers in the Eredivisie and none of them played me off the pitch. On the contrary, I owned them all.”
He’s cocky. He has to be as he was brought up in the suburban area of Doetinchem. Known to the residents as “The Camp” for its low form of living and its somewhat grimey society. Büttner talks of himself as being “a rat” when playing football with the older boys on the streets.
The attitude he carries stems from there- from those rough days when the older boys would tackle him a little harder than most kids, give him a harder pass than they’d give to one of their mates. To test him. To see what he’s made of. An examination to see if could survive amongst the older ones. A process many of us have had to undertake in our lives when growing up playing football. In this environment, cockiness is a shield and something the Dutchman has in abundance.
Aleksander Schau on Norwegian TV2 compared Büttner to a windup car after the announcement was made of Dutchman’s arrival at United. The essence of it being that he’d take off running down the wing and you’d see him just disappear, much like a windup car. Exaggerated in his offensive contribution, not too composed in his defensive work. Perhaps a way to back this claim was to note that for those of us who had never seen anything of Alexander Büttner were caught by surprise when his YouTube videos were labeled “Alexander Büttner: All goals and skills”. Not exactly what you’d expect from a leftback. It does belong to the story that after leaving Ajax for Vitesse he was moved back from an attacking winger to an attacking wingback. To the naked eye, and perhaps to those with a touch of experience with football, moving an established player to a new position usually means the coach has no idea how he wants to use the player. To Alexander Büttner, however, it was just another shantytown-challenge. And he’d overcome this one too. As he had all his life.
Upon signing with Manchester United one would say he seemed nervous. United fans were laughing at he they called “Tom Cleverley’s evil twin” for his rugged appearance. Therefore it was a bit anticlimactic to hear the man himself stutter over his words, not seeming assured and generally seemed nervous when interview by MUTV after signing. The aura about him was that he was a badass, wasn’t it? The video of his home community throwing a huge block party in honour of their prodigy son had further spiked the assessment that here arrived this tough, take-no-prisoners bully who’d hack down any defender that had the audacity of trying to pass him. This just couldn’t be right.
I was there when Alexander Büttner made his debut against Wigan. At first, I had to confess to myself that perhaps the interview had given away some of his true persona. Uncertain of himself, not understanding of how United played and generally nervous. He didn’t belong in that team. He even picked up a stupid yellow card in the first half and lost the ball in his own area, creating a huge chance for Wigan.
Then something happened.
As he came back on, it seemed like just another one of those days with the older boys having thrown “the rat” around. It was his turn to dish some back as he bombed up and down the wing, pumping in cross after cross. He was in his attacker’s face at all times, not giving away anything. This was his time. He assist to Chicharito would have crowned what seemed to a bad debut salvaged by a heroic second half performance. But this is Alexander Büttner we’re talking about. In a run that saw him beat four players, he muscled past the Wigan defence and hammered a ball through Ali Al-Habsi’s guard to seal his dream debut. The goal in itself was nowhere near pretty. But it was edgy, it was daring, it was ruthless, it was rugged.
In many ways, it showed character. A performance by someone adored just for who they are and how they have decided to leave a mark just for what they personify. It was Alexander Büttner. The rat from the streets of Doetinchem, the eccentric wingback at Vitesse, the unknown thug at Manchester United.
Last week, our back four was seriously at fault as Spurs cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter. This week, they turned it around and delivered a clean sheet which brought with it our first victory at St James Park since March 2009.
Amazingly, they did not just reply with a clean sheet but they also produced goals from Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra as the Red Devils took advantage of the Toon’s disorganisation at set pieces. Overall, it was an exciting display from the team as a whole who pleased Sir Alex with their play. Read more…
Rafael da Silva is fast approaching his fourth season at Manchester United and it is clearly his most important.
Since joining the club in 2008, in a deal that included his twin Fabio, he has struggled to hold down a regular spot on the right side of the defence. There are many reasons for this which I will come to but the 2012-13 season can be seen as pivotal in the life of the charismatic youngster.
Rafael and Fabio were spotted by Les Kershaw at the 2005 Nike Premier Cup in Hong Kong. After reporting to Sir Alex Ferguson that the twins reminded him of “two little whippets”, he implored the Scot to make his move. With Arsenal hovering in the background, Old Trafford was decided as the most suitable venue to develop the careers of the young Brazilians who had yet to make a senior appearance for Fluminense. It was a major upheaval for them as they had been nurtured by the club since the age of eleven after being spotted playing football in the street.
Rafael made his league debut against Newcastle United at the start of the 2008-09 season but it was in the seemingly annual pre-season friendly against Ferguson junior at London Road, Peterborough that first brought the diminutive youngster to the attention of the United faithful. What I remember most vividly about that game was the sight of a player who played without fear. Bombing up and down the right flank in a typically Brazilian style drew inevitable but wildly premature comparisons to the likes of Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
Here was someone playing against opponents who were well versed in the rough and tumble of English lower league football but Rafael simply played in the only way he knew how as if he was back in his home town of Petropólis, just outside Rio de Janeiro. It whetted the appetite for the future but rational onlookers knew that patience would be important if such a talent was to rise to the surface.
It is a fact of life that young defenders will make mistakes and it was no different with Rafael. However, his youthful exuberance and sheer tenacity quickly made him a firm favourite among the United faithful who recognised a deep determination within him to learn and develop under the tutelage of a certain right back called Gary Neville. Here was a player who had made the best of limited ability to forge a career at the highest level spanning a couple of decades. Who better to learn the dark arts of being a defender in the Premier League from than the man who symbolised everything that it means to play for Manchester United? Something he shared with Red Nev was having to cope with being allegedly the lesser talented sibling. This was certainly true when the twins were growing up but recent seasons have seen Rafael edge ahead of his more injury prone brother.
Following the retirement of Neville, United are yet to have a settled, first choice right back with the likes of Brown, O’Shea, Jones, Smalling, Valencia and even brother Fabio amongst others have all auditioned for the role with none of them truly convincing the boss that they should have a long term future in that position. Looking through those names, none is a specialist right back with their versatility appealing to Ferguson who can shoe horn them into the side to give them experience or simply game time. With Rafael it is different. He is a right back and it is his specialist position.
Whilst 22 is still relatively young for a defender, you would hope to see some level of maturity developing by this time before the peak years arrive by the mid to late twenties. It has been a sharp learning curve for Rafael in the last four years. By nature he can be impetuous and hot headed which has often seen him fall foul of the officials and at its worst had a detrimental effect on the team. This was perhaps best demonstrated by his two yellow cards against Bayern Munich in April 2010 which ultimately saw United exit the Champions League at the Quarter Final stage. Already on a booking, the young Brazilian was harrying the wily Frenchman Ribery in the centre of the park before a lunge saw a theatrical tumble followed by acting that Gerard Depardieu would have proud of which led to the brandishing of a second yellow for the unfortunate da Silva. Despite the red card, Ferguson clearly saw this as another step in the development of the Brazilian as he praised his performance in shackling the dangerous Ribery for the most part during the home leg.
Another sending off that could have cost United was in January 2011 when Rafael was unluckily given his marching orders by the over officious Mike Dean at White Hart Lane that saw the youngster vent his anger towards the referee with some choice expletives that earned him a small fine and a trip to the FA to explain his conduct. Thankfully, such incidents have become rare ever since although the odd show of impetuosity can still rear its head from time to time such is his determination to win the ball and sheer will to win.
The return to fitness of Nemanja Vidic could be a massive help to Rafael’s chances of nailing down his specialist spot in the side. We all know that a consistent selection of the back four can only be a good thing and it was sadly lacking last year following the knee injury to our captain and to the various other defensive members of the squad.
A back five of De Gea, Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra looks solid on paper and the leadership and experience that will return with Vidic’s recovery will be key in helping the understanding grow between these five as a unit. Ferguson loves to rotate as we all know but if those mentioned can stay fit then you would expect them to line up in many of the important games leaving the lesser league and cup games for the likes of Jones, Smalling and Evans etc.
If most observers would agree that Rafael’s impetuousness has abated over the last year or so, there are still some questions hanging over him in terms of his in-game concentration levels. The stand out moment from last season that emphasises this point emphatically is in the home Europa league tie against Athletic Bilbao when the day-dreaming Brazilian inexplicably allowed the silky young Spaniard Iker Muniain to drift in at the far post to seal United’s fate. To be fair to Rafael, such lapses have been rare but it is a lesson for him that he must keep alert for the full ninety minutes as defensive mistakes are often punished at the top level.
Rafael and Fabio or Fabio and Rafael?
It is also a big season for him as for the first time in his life, he will be living away from his twin Fabio who has joined QPR on a season long loan. While some would argue it should do him the world of good to have to cope on his own, twins have a unique bond that, when separated can lead to anxiety and other issues. I would view this temporary farewell as a chance for Rafael to grow as a man, something which marriage and the responsibility of fatherhood would already have done to him. His sense of stability should be further enhanced by the signing of a new four year deal at the club earlier this summer.
On the pitch, improvement also needs to come in the form of his attacking forays into opposition territory. He has proved a capable assistant to Valencia down the right flank on the overlap but he needs to add a Neville-like crossing ability to his repertoire as well as an ice cool composure when he finds himself in the box. Too often a well-timed, incisive run has been let down by a rushed or over ambitious cross when well-placed much to the irritation of his team mates.
From the evidence of his role for Brazil at the London Olympics, it appears this area of his game has improved. His crosses have certainly looked more measured and his composure was on display as he rifled home a left footed shot in one of the early group games to set the side on its way. However, the Olympic final showed that his concentration could still be an issue when he was caught out in the early stages as Mexico took the lead.
There is something about Rafael as a person that means you cannot help but love the guy. Whether it’s his determination on the field of play, his general all round joie de vivre or the fact that he appears to understand what it is to be a United player, it gives the impression that a lot of people are willing him to succeed.
Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson he has an ally that will tolerate the odd rash rush of blood as long as with a mistake comes a deeper understanding of the role required. I, for one can only see a bright future for the talented Brazilian as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and realises there is no better finishing school in world football than what he has in front of him at Old Trafford.
Wearing a white suit to his unveiling. Missing a drugs test to go shopping. Refusing to sign a new contract. Endless ’5′ brand promotion. Dinner dates with Peter Kenyon. World Cup Wind-ups. Ill-considered tweets.Jumping on players’ backs. #oooffff.
Just some of the reasons why some Reds have never taken Ferdinand to their hearts in the way his defensive partner Vidic has become an icon. At time Ferdinand has appeared to be emblematic of all that is wrong with modern football. Yet even the fiercest critics of his off-field exploits cannot deny his footballing class. In fact, it could be argued that Ferdinand has been our most consistently impressive player over the last decade. Since the manager adopted a Benitez-esque love of rotation it has become a lottery to guess Ferguson’s selection – yet when fit, Rio’s inclusion is a given. One of his finest performances came in 2011, when despite having been written off as a crock, he was plunged back into the action at Stamford Bridge in a Champions League quarter-final. That night Ferdinand was comfortably the best player on the field. Read more…
Despite having his season severely interrupted by a succession of injuries last season, Chris Smalling still managed to make 31 appearances for Manchester United and establish himself as a firm favourite of Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson- who admitted he’d have been in the squad were it not for the unexpectedly severe injury he picked up against Swansea.
A tall, athletic defender, Chris Smalling is a 22 year old centre back with a bright future ahead of him. Originally catching the eye with his superb (but unlucky) debut against Chelsea for Fulham, Smalling secured a £10 million move to United, ahead of Arsenal, and has often been described by the lazy journalist as the next ‘Rio Ferdinand’ due to aesthetic similarities. Read more…
Football fans are fickle. They always have been, and always will be. It isn’t hard to find examples but the debut season of Phil Jones makes a pretty good case study.
Expectations following his signing were moderate; a learning season awaited as understudy to the indestructible partnership of Vidic and Ferdinand. As so often happens, circumstances ripped up the best laid plans and Jones became a mainstay of the first eleven. Early swashbuckling performances fuelled a hype unlike any I have experienced as a United supporter; ‘future captain’, ‘best English player of his generation’ and a multitude of twitter in-jokes lauding his invincibility.