Monday, September 25, 2023

A New United Defence

Manchester United is set to face a daunting set of opponents in the Premier League over the next four weeks and may have to do so without their first choice defense.  Starting with Monday’s visit from Tottenham, the Red Devils face 3 of the top 5 teams from last season in the next 4 weeks, culminating with Chelsea’s visit on September 18th.  For the matches with Spurs, Bolton, Arsenal and Chelsea, Sir Alex Ferguson will have to juggle a young squad and find a way to cover for the loss of 3/4 of his starting defense.

With Patrice Evra already sidelined with an injury, Manchester United suffered another unwelcome loss as Rafael was lost to a shoulder injury in practice prior to the English Premier League opening match against West Bromwich Albion.  The young Brazilian would later be ruled out for 10 weeks, joining Evra in the trainers room.  With the capable Chris Smalling drafted into the starting lineup alongside Rafael’s twin brother Fabio, himself already covering for Evra, United looked set to mix experience with youth.  As Sir Alex Ferguson again reached into the depth of the United system to find a suitable replacement, he will now be faced with the possibility of starting 4 players on his back line who’ve less than a full season of minutes for United under their belt.

Evra, sidelined with a knee injury, may be the first back, having passed fitness tests this week in a bid to play at home against Tottenham on Monday, August 22.  The injuries suffered by Vidic will reportedly keep him out 4-6 weeks, while Ferdinand, originally thought to be out 6 weeks may be able to return more quickly from his hamstring injury. Regardless, this is as good a time as any to examine the men behind the men, as United will clearly have need of their four reserve defenders now and throughout the season.

This is a bit of a large chart, so lets break down exactly what we’re looking at.  Though minutes played has been included, the statistics presented are all totals, not per minute or match played.  For simplicity we’ve instead included the win percentage for possession and aerial duels, as well as for effective clearances.  The chart can be read left to right, with a break at the Rafael/Fabio line, as the first 4 are SAF’s first choice defense, while the later 4 appear to be his chosen replacements based on the first match of the season.

There is a notable difference between Rio and Rafael’s tackle rate in challenges over their replacements, Jones and Smalling.  Rio wins a full 80% of his tackles, with Rafael nearly as efficient at 76% while he is the single greatest tackler per minute in the entire defense.  In just 1,200′ he attempted 58, and won 44, tackles, more than twice as many as Rio in 500′ fewer.  With his surgery having already gone forward, he is out through September, and maybe sidelined longer.   Though the least experienced in the EPL, it is actually his brother Fabio who should be used to replace him here.

If Evra is indeed fit, and does start on the left, moving Fabio to the right would best replicate his twin brother play.  Fabio has slightly worse per minute tackle attempted than that of Rafael, but his success rate is the best of any of the 8 compared here at 81.5%.  Further, Fabio and Rafael have very similar clearance numbers.  Fabio’s effective clearance of nearly 62% compares favorably to Rafael’s 58% and their interceptions, blocks and headed clearances are all in lockstep on a per minute basis.  Where Rafael has a clear advantage over his brother is winning possession and aerial duels.  In that regard it is Chris Smalling – the right back on opening weekend – who compares more favorably.

Smalling  wins less than 60% of his tackles, but is better at winning possession duels that Fabio.   From his numbers, he does compare favorably to Vidic for winning duels and with Rio for interceptions.  Clearly what makes the first choice centre half paring so imposing is that Smalling best compares to the lesser of each mans attributes.  However, Smalling has shown the ability and composure to play the positions and as experience begins to win over youth he should be able to build on a solid foundation.  Interestingly, it would seem that United are best served by moving Fabio to right back and Smalling into the center.  This would leave just one position to be filled by either Jones or Evans.

Jones v. Evans is the question on most United supporters minds.  Johnny Evans played more than 1,000′ in the league last season, comporting himself well and establishing his own ability to play at the highest level.  Phil Jones was one of a trio of high priced transfers Sir Alex brought in this summer as he grooms replacements for several aging members of his squad.  Jones’ numbers are a bit skewed by his playing for another team, but he does currently compare only slightly less favorably with Vidic and Ferdinand as Smalling or Evans.   Jones’ statistics indicate he is not as skilled at taking players off the ball with a tackle Evans, and he does not win possession duels as effectively as Smalling.  However the single greatest difference, and the point which could prove most costly in a match, is in loss of possession.

The centre half pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand lost possession a combined 18 times in 4,827′.  That is a loss of possession only once ever 268′ or, roughly, once ever 3 games. Comparatively,  Jones lost possession once every 47′ or, roughly, once a half given added time. Over a span of 6 games, where either Rio or Vidic alone could only be expected to lose possession once, Jones can be expected to lose possession as much as 12 times.  That creates 11 additional opportunities for the opposition and, given the high level of skill of the opposition, a high likelihood of chances created and goals scored.  Johnny Evans lost possession just 8 times in 1,006′ – once every 125′.  Over 6 matches he can be expected to lose possession just 4 times.  That may seem like a small number, 8 losses of possession spread over 6 matches, but in a tight Title race, in matches against title rivals, Manchester United will need to eliminate mistakes.

In looking at the chart above, Jones number may not stand out as starkly because of Evra and Fabio’s per minute loss of possession is similar to Jones.  With Evra and Fabio playing on the wing there are, at the least, three player behind them giving cover – the two centre halves and the ‘keeper.  Clearly Vidic is astute as a last line of defense, attempting 74 tackles, including 7 last man tackles, while 467 combined possession and aerial duels.  When Vidic is replaced by Jones, there is no longer the stoic last line of defense for Manchester’s wing backs to rely on, and similarly for Jones, each mistake will be amplified by he himself being the last line of defense.  Though he may be a highly skilled youngster on his way to a bright future, over four matches where the title race could be decided, United would be best served to place their faith in Evans and Smalling.

For a quick look at the Fantasy Premier League value of Manchester United’s new back line read Cooper’s article here.

Cooper is the founder of - All the Info You Need to Win Your Fantasy EPL League. He also contributes to Backpage Football. Follow him on Twitter @FantasyGaffer.
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