Running the Rule Over the Defence
Kevin Levingston examines our defence and gives his views on which players may be on borrowed time….
The main narrative of our season so far has been a persistent struggle against injuries in the first team. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the Red’s back line. Putting aside all discussions about training process and the ability of our medical team to rehabilitate people capably; it is becoming clear that there are a number of players that Mr Van Gaal can no longer rely on to be consistently available. One thing is certain; new defenders will arrive before long. Whether it’s in January or in the summer, the boss needs players he can rely upon for fitness and form. The clock is ticking for our defence. Below is a rundown of our current troops and how secure their futures are based on performances and fitness.
Rafael Da Silva
Undoubtedly a fan favourite. The right-back is in his seventh season at Old Trafford now and on his day looks every inch the player we all hoped he could become. A particularly impressive 2012-13 season saw him put paid to what remained of his critics and prove that he could indeed be a fixture for us on the right hand side. Impetuousness had made way for a far more measured and methodical approach, without having lost the boyish exuberance that complimented his game so well. He had arrived. An interrupted (by injury) and inconsistent 13-14 season followed, but he was no worse than anyone else had been under David Moyes.
Fitness – Injury has restricted Rafael to just 3 appearances this term. Seems to miss a considerable chunk of every season.
Form – Probably hasn’t quite featured enough to make up Van Gaal’s mind one way or the other about his ability.
Verdict: Lack of depth in this position means the Brazilian will be retained and judged at a later date, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see another right-back brought in for competition. A summer move for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne seems a possibility.
A £29million arrival from Southampton in the summer. The youngster was a revelation for Southampton last season and the Reds were just one of a number of interested clubs. For such a hefty price there is a certain amount of pressure on the left-back but there is a confidence that Shaw can go on to make the left back position his own for the next ten years. He has shown his quality in fits and starts so far this year.
Fitness – Unfortunately set to be out until the New Year with injury. Initial doubts about his conditioning and application in training were put to bed in the autumn; Louis Van Gall calling him an “example” to the rest of the team. There doesn’t seem to be any long term fitness concerns, though he will be looking for a long run of games in the New Year.
Form – Understandably still settling in, the left-back has done enough for fans and pundits alike to get very excited about his future.
Verdict: Has a massive opportunity to become the first name on Van Gaal’s team sheet each week. His future seems secure.
Now in his fourth season at the club, the player once described as “better than Duncan Edwards” has not lived up to expectations. An impressive enough first eighteen months has made way for a more interrupted last two years. On his best day Jones is a powerful presence at the back but his overall game has not improved as one might have hoped it would. A habit of making fantastic last ditch tackles has often distracted from the Lancashire lad’s inability to read the game, whilst a tendency to throw himself about like he’s made of granite has exposed the fact that he’s actually made of glass. He has missed far too many games over the last few seasons. Quite often as a result of his own recklessness.
Fitness – Made his return from injury (again) against Liverpool. Spends just as much time on the treatment table as on the pitch.
Form - So-so.
Verdict: His potential means Van Gaal is unlikely to get rid of him just yet, but the boss will be far from convinced that he can rely on Jones’ form or performances going forward. Expect him to stick around, but expect his place in the first team to be taken by a new arrival. After that, who knows?
A product of the academy and our most experienced centre-back; dating back to the heady days of partnering Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in turn and not looking out of place. The lad from Norn Iron overcame a lot of adversity in his formative years at Old Trafford and there was even talk in some quarters of awarding him the captaincy at the start of the season. Our only defender with proper experience of playing consistently at the peak of the British and European game. You would hope he could be an example for the rest.
Fitness – Currently on his way back from injury. Good for at least one medium-term injury per season. Usually more.
Form – Awful. Looks a shadow of his former self this season and has made a number of key mistakes.
Verdict: He should be worried. He has a massive affiliation with the club and being a home grown player will count in his favour, but he has shown Van Gaal nothing in games to suggest he’s the man for our defence going forward. Needs a massive upturn in form and fitness or he’ll be off in the summer.
Once heralded as the new Rio Ferdinand; a subsequent three seasons of shanking the ball into team-mates midriff, shins or into the stands has put paid to that particular theory, however the former Maidstone stopper is probably the most natural defender in our squad. It’s a good thing too, as he has very little to offer in an offensive sense. He possesses extremely capable reading of the game and is a strong tackler.
Fitness – Currently injured. Again. Brittle.
Form – Mixed. THAT mistake against City is fresh in peoples minds but it was flanked by impressive showings against Chelsea, Arsenal and Hull. Injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Verdict: Chances are that only one of Smalling, Jones and Evans has a long term future at Old Trafford. Before succumbing to injury against Southampton, Smalling looked set to ensure that it would be him. Still, you feel that his Manchester United story is not yet over.
A new arrival at United after an impressive World Cup showing and versatile enough to play at left back or in the centre of defence; Marcus Rojo is still very much an unknown quantity. Has impressed at times and looked an uncertain prospect at others. He is a left footer and the boss is apparently a big fan.
Fitness – Disolcated his own shoulder in a tackle for his second injury of the season. He had previously missed time with a knee complaint. Pulled out of the Liverpool game the day before. Three months, three injuries. One would hope it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Form – Steady. No worse than any of his colleagues in defence, but needs a run of games. Looks competent, if not a little weak in the air. Very much still adjusting to the Premier League.
Verdict: Shouldn’t be worried. Van Gaal is a hard task master but Rojo should get more than his fair share of chances to prove himself. Should be the least worried of our centre-backs. The boss will look for Rojo to become a fixture in his defence.
Paddy McNair & Tyler Blackett
In many ways the success story of Van Gaal’s tenure, particularly in the case of Paddy McNair. The youngsters have come in and done a job due to the sheer weight of injuries in defence. For the most part, they have exceeded all expectations and should be commended for that. It is too soon, however, to make any judgements on their future. For now they remain exciting prospects.
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Time for Moyes to start answering the big questions.
What a time for a break. You’d certainly forgive David Moyes for taking some time out to enjoy some rest and recuperation following a suffocating opening few months to life as manager of Manchester United. The old adage that ‘everyone thinks they can be manager’ was traditionally aimed at the national team job but in today’s globalised world debate on who should make up the first eleven of Manchester United rages untamed. Southampton at home should represent the most routine of fixtures yet given the contrasting fortunes of the two sides thus far it has emerged as the pick of the weekend fixtures at betting sites like news.coral.co.uk.
Rather than engage in some downtime, it is far more likely that workaholic Moyes spent every waking hour wrestling with the challenges he faces over the next few weeks, months and even years. Whereas Ferguson became an expert at managing in the face of restriction from above, his successor has found himself roundly criticised for attempting to manage expectations of a manically demanding fanbase. The facebook and twitter mafia might be expected to hit the panic button more readily than the wise old match goer; but both sets of fan groups have legitimate concerns which need to be addressed over the coming series of fixtures.
So what are these challenges that Moyes needs to approach head on?
Proving the Doubters Wrong
Twelve points. Not since May 2001 has the gap between the Premiership leaders and their nearest challengers been so gaping. Manchester United have garnered the highest points tally (65) after 26 games than any other outfit in the Premiership era.
Yet this is a side which receives very little love from the media. Every journalist or pundit stresses to clarify that this is far from a vintage Manchester United side. They’re not blowing teams away every week and their level of performance is far from spectacular. They will go out of the Champions League to Real Madrid and any domestic success will be as a result of the perceived low standard of the competition.
Now, I’m old enough to remember back to May last year. Manchester United ‘blew it’ in ‘the most exciting title race ever’. Manchester City had a seemingly endless chequebook, and by all accounts had a far superior starting eleven and greater strength in depth. Radio phone-in’s across the land and internet football forums were gleeful that not only were United no longer the biggest club in the world, but they weren’t even going to be the biggest in their own city. Then there was Chelsea – European champions and ready to launch a fresh assault on the Manchester dominance.
Jonny Evans- The Finest Centre Half in the Premier League
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).
Where Does Chris Smalling Stand Next Season?
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.