When Patrice Evra was recently sacked by Marseille following the altercation with a supporter, some supporters jokingly suggested that he should come back to United in the January window. Those jokers were shot down angrily; the reason being that the joke was not absurd enough to not be dismissed out of hand.
If you were to take a cross-section of those United fans and asked them if they were serious about the idea of Evra returning on a short-term basis the odds are you would find at least one who would say, “Well, no, but…”
This is not about Patrice Evra. The point doesn’t really relate to Evra. It does, however, say an awful lot about the current state of Manchester United’s defence that the idea isn’t being dismissed in the same sort of sentimental way people would want Eric Cantona to return to the United team in any of the three summers after he retired (guilty, m’lord).
United have had a great defensive record this season with a good number of clean sheets. Amidst all the criticism for the manager Jose Mourinho and how much he apparently parks the bus, one only has to take a look at the quality of players in the United defence to appreciate the work Mourinho has done in even improving them beyond Louis van Gaal’s fine organisation of them.
A good manager is not a miracle worker however and as good as the coaches have done, United have been let down by the simple, hard fact that compared to the defence of ten years ago, they do not have the players to compare. It is too soon to dismiss Victor Lindelof completely, and too soon from his return to say Marcos Rojo won’t make a real name for himself as a starter, while Eric Bailly largely escapes criticism due to the commonly accepted opinion that he is the best defender the club has. United’s issues in the middle stem from the use of either Daley Blind (too slow) or Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
Phil Jones plays his best football after he has had a run of games but, as was the case against Stoke City earlier in the season, it is evident that he generally makes a critical error every four or five games. Is this reliable? “Even Nemanja Vidic made errors” — yes, and maybe as many as two or three a season, but therein lies the difference. With Vidic, United were top of the table, with Jones, United are currently locked in a realistic fight for second.
In 6 of those 7 games where United have conceded, Chris Smalling has been present. Aside from the game against Stoke City, Manchester United have not conceded a goal this season when Chris Smalling has not been playing.
It is obvious to many that United have issues at centre half and in a way that has protected the eye from seeing other issues, namely, that the club are just as desperate for top quality full backs. To mention this is sacrilege to some who can’t understand why someone would point out that Ashley Young is not the answer in a period where he has been playing so well at left back. Young’s form has been more or less fine — suspect though it was at Huddersfield — but it’s been fine in the way that is passable based on the expectations one has of a left winger playing at left back. Passable.
The same description could be applied to Antonio Valencia’s migration to full back on the other side, which began, let us not forget, due to the former Wigan player not exactly being relentlessly consistent when playing as a winger. The quality of his delivery often leaves much to be desired, and yet, is probably about as consistent as one might expect from a full back. His defensive positioning has definitely improved, to the point where Mourinho’s boast about having the best right back in the world wasn’t met with the ultimate derision it may once have, but now, having improved to get to the standard he currently is, at the age of 32, the decline is due to begin and the attention should be turned to finding a successor.
Of United’s other options, well, the quiet rumble of voices feeling Axel Tuanzebe should be given more of a chance is due to become louder, as is that of those who feel Timothy Fosu-Mensah is deserving of at least being part of this rotation. No cause has been as divisive as that of Luke Shaw, and even if many will accept that the manager will simply have to move him on, the idea of Danny Rose — a player three years older, with an injury record that isn’t particularly much more impressive than Shaw’s — being his replacement only gives those who want the ex-Southampton man to be given more chances, more fuel for their argument.
Turning Shaw’s mentality around might be seen as many to be the job of the manager; but, in fairness, he may have already tried, and in his own eyes, failed. This would be a shame considering Shaw’s potential and the capability of his departure coming back at haunt United, especially in the current climate. Effective management seems the best solution when there aren’t many options which are an upgrade on a fit and in-form Shaw. Mourinho speaks highly enough of him, but it seems obvious this is only a case of protecting what is left of his market value. Hopes that Cameron Borthwick-Jackson may have been able to build on the momentum of his promising start have been well and truly stunted.
Last season, Pep Guardiola openly admitted he didn’t want to coach defending, and his solution to his club’s full-back issue was to allow all of his existing options to run down their contracts and replace them with £50m options. And here is the difference for those who cannot for the life of them distinguish the significant difference in financial approaches between the Manchester clubs. United, for all their own riches, will not be in a position to spend north of £100m solely on full-backs — even if, in a one-off event, they did this, it would be at the cost of necessary regeneration elsewhere.
Who would be United’s options at full-back if Spurs rebuff the attempts to sign Rose? Alex Sandro of Juventus is arguably the best in the world in his area though David Alaba competes for that title at left back; the chances of signing either of those are about as realistic as bringing Patrice Evra back.
It’s obvious, then, that the fix isn’t obvious. It will probably require the use of the chequebook, and, given the majority success of Mourinho’s transfer record so far, you have to trust in who he identifies as the players who stand to come in. It does seem to be at least a little fair to say that United may have the answer within; and, considering supporters are more inclined to show more patience with young players, or Shaw, than they are with the current players who are not quite at the level required, one wonders if it may be an opportunity missed, even if it is from a manager who is renowned for not taking such risks.
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