The defence is an area of the team for which, in his later years as manager, Sir Alex appeared to be planning ahead. The squad has a number of younger players, some of whom have had plenty of first team experience now; others are waiting for their chance. Perhaps, though, problems in defence share the same root cause as those in midfield: the signing of promising young players hasn’t always paid off. In spite of investment, the defence has appeared significantly weaker this season and we will try to look at the reasons for this.
United haven’t signed a tried and tested, established first team outfield player since the arrival of Vidic and Evra in the 2006 January transfer window (both established internationals who had won club honours elsewhere). United fans have become familiar with the phrase “no value in the market” as other clubs have bought established defenders, or signed youngsters that have proved to be potential gems. One has to conclude that there was value in the market if, firstly, one was shrewd enough and, secondly, prepared to pay a reasonable sum.
In looking at the defence we will put the goalkeeping position to one side. De Gea is now the de-facto number 1 and has improved over the last three seasons to the extent that most now see this position as one of strength rather than a weakness. That leaves the fullbacks and central defensive pair.
At centre back the pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand has been a great partnership for United; they have been an integral part of United winning a significant number of domestic honours as well as a Champions League. At www.manutdtactics.com we like to consider centre backs as a pair. Occasionally we play a game of selecting our best ever United team from the players we have seen play. The author of this piece always starts with the 1993-94 team and measures other players against the personnel in that side. In terms of the centre backs that means Bruce and Pallister, but in recent years I have begun to come around to the idea that Vidic and Ferdinand, at their peak, would get the nod ahead of them.
But time has caught up with them. Ferdinand has lost pace and although he has adjusted his game to a degree to compensate, he is not the same player. Vidic has struggled with injuries, (perhaps inevitably, given his warrior-like game) and this season seems to have lost appetite. This may be a consequence of the new managerial regime and unfortunately Vidic has agreed to sign for Internazionale in the summer. With Ferdinand also announcing his departure, United must now look to the future.
With the future in mind, Sir Alex signed Chris Smalling in 2010 and Phil Jones in 2011 to supplement Academy graduate Jonny Evans. None of these players have truly established themselves. In his four full seasons at the club Smalling has made 72 appearances, in his three seasons at the club Jones has made 68 appearances, whilst Evans has made 114 appearances in 8 seasons (although that period has included two loan spells at other clubs). This tells the story. If they are to demonstrate they are good enough to sustain a long term place in the side, all three really need to step up and step up now. In fairness, Smalling and Jones have each been asked to fill in at fullback, and in Jones’ case occasionally also in midfield. This has probably held them back. Jones seems the most likely to make the grade, but his progress has been hampered by injuries. Evans had a bit of a reputation in his younger years as a player with a soft centre, but an injury to Vidic in 2011-12 saw him enjoy an extended run in the team alongside Ferdinand. In that period he put that weakness behind him and developed a solid partnership with the senior player, which saw United very nearly take the title from Manchester City but for last day drama.
That run of games highlights the two main problems for United at centre back.
The first of these relates back to our earlier point about centre back partnerships. During that period in 2011-12 Evans and Ferdinand established a settled partnership. They were the established first choice pair and United benefited greatly from the stability this gave the side. Since then, United have never really had that same stability. The centre back area is one where www.manutdtactics.com would consider it wholly appropriate to avoid rotation. But the ageing of Vidic and Ferdinand has made rotation and regular changes necessary in order to avoid over playing them or in response to injury. This situation highlights our view that the younger players simply haven’t stepped up. David Moyes tried to address the issue by selecting Vidic and Ferdinand as his first choice pair at the start of the season, but after the first six league games he was unable to continue with this selection policy. (Interestingly Giggs returned to the pair for his first two games as interim manager.)
The second factor is a need for a leader at the back. All defences need an organiser with a strong character and a never-say-die attitude who will push those around him to greater efforts when necessary. He must be shrewd and someone who will lead by example. In 2011-12 Ferdinand (as the senior partner) was the leader. In the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership, Vidic was generally that leader, although Ferdinand is a former United captain and a strong character. The problem has been that when both these players have been unavailable there has not been a clear leader at the back. As the older and more experienced player, Jonny Evans would appear to be the natural choice to lead the defence, but he simply hasn’t asserted himself. Smalling seems too quiet. That leaves Phil Jones. Touted by many as a future club captain, he has a reputation for being able to start a fight in an empty room. So he appears to be the most likely contender, but needs to avoid injury and claim the role for himself.
This brings us to the full back positions. As with Ferdinand and Vidic, Patrice Evra is a player who has served United well over the last eight years and who is perhaps coming to the end of his career. In many ways he has been the epitome of the modern full back. As much as an attacker as a defender, he has had a patchy career at United. At his peak he was probably the best left back in the world but lately has become a liability, regularly caught out of position, whether up field or playing narrow in defence. He has always had a tendency to ball-watch and allow attackers to run free. As Ferdinand’s pace has dropped off, this has left Evra exposed and he no longer has the legs to get back. We would prefer to remember him as the player selected for the FIFA and UEFA teams of the year in 2009.
A couple of years ago Sir Alex signed Alex Buttner as Evra’s understudy and potential heir. Sadly, Buttner is a classic example of the failure of United’s policy of attempting to sign promising young players who might come good and would have a potential re-sale value when they do. Buttner is a good professional with limited ability. He is reasonably good going forward (and perhaps the best crosser at the club right now – his low crosses have real whip on them and usually frighten central defenders more than others’ floated far post crosses) but he is impetuous as a defender. Although he has improved during his time at the club, does anybody believe he will one day be first choice left back? David Moyes’ pursuit of Leighton Baines suggests that he did not and constant speculation about potential left back signings this summer suggest that others share this view.
At right back Rafael is the established player. He is another who can be impetuous, although in fairness the excesses of his youthful earlier years are now a rarer occurrence. Perhaps like Evra, Rafael offers at least as much in attack as in defence. As a defender he is not of the highest quality but he is adequate. Other areas of the side need closer attention and so he is likely to be United’s first choice right back for at least another season. The lack of cover at right back has meant that Jones and Smalling have been used there, with the result that their development at centre back has been hampered. United signed Valera, a young right back from Penarol in Uruguay last summer, but to date he has not been given a first team chance.
The sum total of all of this is that the defence now needs significant investment. A solid, established defence is critical to ensuring United have a strong platform from which to attack. It is the bedrock: United are nearly always a strong attacking force. We would suggest though, that in periods of success, having a strong defence has made the difference. We may only need one or two players to get it right, but they need to be the right ones if United are going to develop the stability they need. With Ferdinand and Vidic leaving the club, the priority must be to purchase a centre-back, closely followed by a high class left back.