When Paddy McNair was selected for his debut match against West Ham, I had hardly heard of him. Louis van Gaal had to choose a youth team player to fill a gap defensively, and he was chosen over Tom Thorpe, much to my surprise. As that match went on however, I began to adore the Northern Irishman, admiring his calmness, composure on the ball, and his willingness to do whatever it took to win. That desire was evident in his headed clearance late in the match, where his body was in the most unlikely of positions to do so. He had made an immediate impression on me.
After that match against the Hammers, I had a feeling that McNair would be a key player in the future for United. As the season has progressed, McNair has had his ups and downs, but I still believe that Paddy McNair will be a defensive lynchpin to any great United teams in the near and distant future. He has a style of play that fits in with the attacking philosophy of Louis van Gaal and Manchester United, while also being sound on the other side of the ball. He has time on his side to get better, as he only recently turned 20 years old. This article will cover how his debut season in the first team has gone, what lies ahead in the future for him, and how Paddy McNair is the latest player to resemble the vision of a managerial icon.
Manchester United’s Defensive Issues
Throughout 2014/2015, the defence of Manchester United have had all sorts of issues. In the beginning of the season, Van Gaal deployed three at the back with wing backs. At times, some of the players in the system appeared uncomfortable, not fully familiar with the demands of playing three across the back. Most of the year from that point on has been with four defenders. However, no matter what system was played, defensive issues have still been a main problem of Manchester United’s year. We have been lucky to have a goalkeeper of David De Gea’s quality, having single-handedly saved us points in several matches. If it were not for De Gea’s form this year, it is entirely possible that Champions League football would not be returning to Old Trafford next season. In that aspect, winning the Matt Busby Player of the Year award is more than deserved. However, with rumours of the Spaniard going back home and signing a deal with Real Madrid, these issues have to be addressed now before it is too late, regardless of whether our first choice goalkeeper returns or not.
Fans can point to the lack of consistency in the team as a reason for our struggles, having had to confront various injury troubles throughout the year. All of United’s central defenders have been out of the team for a lengthy spell at one point in the season either due to injury or suspension. The result of that pattern was a constant chopping and changing at the back, with an unchanged defensive selection occurring rarely.
Regardless of the personnel, the same issues have come up in play. The back four are often caught out by balls played in behind, placed into a quick player’s feet. This is where De Gea was immense throughout the year, being very proactive in getting off of his line and clearing the threat when played beyond United’s back four. On occasion, our defenders dive into a challenge too early and are beaten by skilful opponents, leading to not only space being conceded as a result of their eagerness, but also opposition scoring chances as a result of a numerical advantage created after losing that duel. Every now and then, and especially early in the season the back four would give the ball away in dangerous areas of our defensive third while building up. De Gea came up with some massive saves after these calamities, it is imperative that problem is fixed for next year if a title charge is the ambition.
Paddy McNair in 2014/2015 – Defence
When comparing the performances of McNair to the rest of United’s centre backs, McNair was not exempt from some of the troubles encountered by the rest of the defence. Considering Paddy made his breakthrough this year, some growing pains were expected. This season provided a solid platform for him to develop, as it not only provided him the opportunity for some first team football, but also a proportion of the matches he played in were against top quality opposition.
Paddy this year demonstrated some good defensive play for the Red Devils. He appeared at ease whenever playing centre back in a back four, playing full back, or being the central player in a three across the back set up. Unlike some others in the squad, he appeared to have little trouble transitioning from one system to the other. Some parts where he has done well defensively include his anticipation and 1v1 defending.
Louis van Gaal emphasises the collective group in both defence and attack, therefore it is more important to discuss how Paddy McNair defends in the context of the whole group rather than exclusively focus on 1v1 defending. This is when his anticipation ability comes in handy, as he able to see events on the pitch before they actually happen. Below is an example in United’s 2-1 win at the Emirates against Arsenal. In this match United played five at the back as LvG used the strategy discussed in Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography for beating Arsenal. Essentially, it’s to sit back, frustrate them, and then hit Arsenal on the counter and they will eventually self destruct. The risk in that tactic is that you give Arsenal space to play, leading to chances created like those in the first half of that match. Luckily, McNair was there to squash some of those, such as the one below with Danny Welbeck nearly 1v1 with David De Gea.
Paddy McNair also put in an exceptional performance when tasked with dealing with Tottenham’s Harry Kane, who became an overnight sensation this year due to goal scoring form. When playing at White Hart Lane, Kane was left frustrated on the day. McNair deserves credit for that performance, yet Tottenham’s other threats nearly edged United. The match ended up in a 0-0 draw. In the 55th minute of that match, there was a great display of team defence which culminated in a McNair interception and clearance.
Statistics have become an increasingly important aspect of player analysis in recent years, as they often tell a story that isn’t necessarily obvious on the pitch. How does Paddy McNair hold up against his compatriots when they are measured quantitatively?
Using the chart above, it’s evident that McNair is behind his peers at the moment when it comes to the defensive side of the game. He has the second lowest totals per 90 minutes in interceptions, percentage of aerial duels won, and clearances. He also has the lowest percentage of total duels won, which one could argue is a solid barometer for how good a defender really is when faced with an attacking threat. A silver lining of these numbers is that many of McNair’s appearances have been brief substitute showings, in which he could do very little in that time. In some of the matches where the Northern Irishman did start, Manchester United dominated the match and little was asked of McNair defensively. In order for McNair to begin to feature more for United in the near future he does have to make progress defensively.
McNair in 2014/2015 – Attacking
In the modern game, centre backs are being judged more by what they contribute to the team in attack than ever before. Especially in a build up style such as we now see at Old Trafford, a lot of responsibility lies with the centre backs in regards to how the team attacks. When compared to his comrades in his position this season, Paddy has done well statistically when it comes to posing a threat in possession. As seen in the comparison matrix below (thanks to squawka.com), McNair has done well with his passing percentages, take-ons, and occasionally providing his teammates with passes which lead to scoring chances.
It’s one thing to look at statistics, and it’s another to see it play out in a match. McNair’s background as a midfielder comes in handy in this regard, and he engages the opposition defence like, well, a midfielder. Take the example below against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
When he sees space ahead, he charges at it, forcing the central players in the midfield bank of four of Crystal Palace to stop the threat on the ball. At the same time, Palace’s central defenders are retreating to make sure space isn’t created in behind. This opens a channel for Wayne Rooney to have a shot, McNair lays the ball off to him just before he is knocked over.
This is just one example of what McNair brings to an attack from the back. His teammates this season have not been as wise when it comes to how they have chosen their moments to dribble past defenders. Below is Chris Smalling in the second Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. City were placing significant pressure on the Red Devils early on, and Chris Smalling didn’t quite know how to deal with it.
It’s not only just dribbling where McNair has done well this year for United. In what Louis Van Gaal considered to be one of the team’s best performance, McNair had an excellent passing display against Chelsea. His frequent passing partners were Chris Smalling and David De Gea, who received 35 of his 83 passes. Part of the reasoning behind this is Mourinho’s excellent team defensive structure, blocking the passing lanes into midfield. Despite some of the negative connotations associated with playing side to side, the passing from side to side and backwards is designed to try and bait Chelsea out to press. This idea is a part of Van Gaal’s philosophy when facing teams using a low defensive block. It appears that McNair understands the requirements of the manager very well, and may feature more next season as a result.
The Near and Distant Future of Paddy McNair
In the past couple of seasons, the press have published countless rumours of Manchester United signing a new central defender. The most common of these names thrown around was German international Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund. A physical imposing, technical defender, he ticks all the boxes of what the Red Devils need in the back. However, the German press has recently revealed that he wants to stay in Dortmund and play for new manager Thomas Tuchel. Therefore, Manchester United are likely to have to look toward other options.
Manutdtactics.com has already published a piece on some likely targets and how they will fit in at Old Trafford. That article can be found here. One target that has been suggested which the article failed to address was Aleksandar Dragovic of Dynamo Kyiv. The Austrian is very similar in terms of his play style to Mats Hummels, and would be an exceptional target for the club. He is physically imposing, good on the ball, and has quite the reputation for being tough in the tackle. The only questions regarding the purchase however are whether he can compete at the highest levels in Europe, having not played in a top European League and not playing the Champions League in recent seasons. That said, he was impressive in the Basel side which managed to knock Manchester United out of the Champions’ League group stage in 2011, so he has shown his calibre before.
To be brief, McNair as of now does not have a particular defensive edge on any of the targets mentioned in the article above or on Dragovic. But if any of these targets are brought in, it is more likely that Jonny Evans will depart Old Trafford. Raising the quality of the centre backs selected more often should allow McNair to develop in matches with less pressure, or be selected when needed in emergencies for the first team. As Louis van Gaal has shown throughout his career with defenders such as Holger Badstuber and Carles Puyol, he is not afraid to play youth. Trust has to be shown with LvG that he knows what is best for McNair regarding how many games he features in. Considering Paddy hasn’t been playing that position for very long, United fans should not be worried as there is definitely room for improvement.
Paddy McNair as a player is very unique in terms of his play style. Having spent the majority of his life as a smaller player, he needed to develop technical proficiency and solid tactical awareness in order to compensate on the pitch. Now that he has undergone a growth spurt up to six feet tall, he has all the makings of a very promising player, and one very similar to one of world football’s best defenders: Sergio Ramos.
While McNair might not have the disciplinary record of Ramos, he shares a remarkably close style of play to the Real Madrid defender. Both of them love to surge forward whenever it’s appropriate for them to do so, and both have a high level of technical ability, as demonstrated through their passing. They each take shots from distance to try and see if they can catch the goalkeeper off guard, with McNair registering three shots outside the box this season, and Ramos averaging around five or six over the past few seasons. They both show a similar range of passing to their teammates, and both often use nearly identical feints to deceive opposition forwards attempting to win the ball off of them. Defensively, the two of them are not eager to win the ball right away in a 1v1, preferring to time tackles when they are sure they can win the ball, or at least delay the opposition (Ramos does this with more force than McNair, which is one explanation for his poorer disciplinary record).
Sergio Ramos early on in his career played as a right back before moving inside to centre back, which is something which Paddy McNair may have to do as well at this stage in his career. When reviewing footage of Ramos in that position, his playing style at fullback was very similar to how McNair played in that position when he featured there as a part of the FA Cup campaign and with the U21s.
McNair is clearly not as good as Sergio Ramos yet. There are a couple of steps that McNair needs to take in order to transform his game from a young talent to a genuine top class centre back. When on the ball, Paddy needs to find a forward option more often. While passing back to the goalie and his centre back partner is all part of building up, he needs to find options up the pitch with higher frequency if he wants to make a name for himself as an elite ball-playing centre back. A centre back in the mould of Rio Ferdinand has been missing from this new look Manchester United side, Ferdinand would often break through the opponent’s defensive lines and start attacks. While Michael Carrick has often done that task this season, he or whoever plays that role needs assistance so that teams have to stop multiple suppliers to the midfield and forwards. McNair is capable of doing that task, he simply needs time to learn how to do so.
Also, Paddy needs to further develop physically. This additional focus on his body would not only help him compete with larger forwards whose games are centred around their physical build, but it would also help him with several parts of his mobility. While McNair is very mobile as a player, a fitness regime for him could help him be more explosive on the ground and in the air. That extra bit of speed could make the difference between a clean sheet and a goal conceded. Some matches in which he struggled at points with his pace included his duels with Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard, and Newcastle’s Adam Armstrong, all of whom are remarkably quick. Two of those players are among the top young talents right now and having that marginal speed is the difference at the highest levels of the game, a level which I believe McNair is absolutely capable of reaching.
Paddy McNair and the Transformation of his Game
Paddy McNair is also an embodiment of an idea which former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi put forward a few years ago. Sacchi claimed that no tactical innovations had been made since his great Milan team of the early 1990’s, and that no more could be made unless the rules of the game changed. He instead argued that advancements would be made in sport science and technology, and a common trend would occur in player development. He believed that eventually, all twenty-two players on the pitch would have to be able to do every offensive and defensive action as the demands of the game increased. The Italian called this idea Universality, or having players capable of doing everything on the pitch. This wasn’t a new idea of course but instead the fulfilment of an idea developed long ago, the idea in fact underpinning the Dutch concept of “Total Football”. Van Gaal himself has talked about his preference for multi-functional or universal players. This would mean that in turn, one day the game would be composed of players who all have the traits of midfielders and that specialization of a particular role (ex. playmaker, poacher) would disappear at the highest levels. In his book “Inverting the Pyramid” Jonathan Wilson proposes that this idea is the future of the game, and describes how the ideas are already coming into fruition.
In recent years, players such as Arturo Vidal, Javi Martinez, and David Alaba have been the shining examples of this idea being applied. It can be argued that Paddy McNair has the potential to be another example of this prophecy. It was mentioned previously how McNair had only been playing centre back for a short time. That’s because he initially came to Manchester United as an attacking midfielder, and was trained over the years to play that position. Once he grew a little U-18 manager Paul McGuinness saw an opening in his team for Paddy to start to play at the back. He wasn’t put back there because of a lack of technical ability unlike some players throughout the years, but rather the opposite. McNair was converted to a centre back because his traits as a midfielder are becoming increasingly in demand in other positions, specifically centre back. His poise on the ball, decision making ability, and technical quickness are needed at the highest level now due to the increased emphasis on building up out of the back, and retention of the ball at United under Van Gaal. McNair is not a story of someone failing to secure a place in their preferred position, but rather an example of how the future of the game will be composed of more midfielder type players, regardless of what their actual position is on the pitch.
When reviewing all of the pieces, it appears that Paddy is not quite ready to be a full member of the United first team. While he does show flashes of highly promising play in some of his appearances, he needs to do this on a more consistent basis before becoming a key member of the starting eleven. The next year under Louis van Gaal will only provide McNair with more opportunities to learn and grow as a player. Maybe in the next two years or so, Paddy will turn into the defensive solution that this club is craving. The future looks bright for the youngster, and there is no better place for him right now than Manchester United.
Written by Austin Reynolds.
Follow him on Twitter @AReynolds70 and check out his personal tactics blog at theaustinreynolds.wordpress.com