Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are starting to show the fans that they are the future of this great football club. More noticeably, the former is a Manchester United academy product – one that we can gloat about. Every football club has a player that surpasses or finally lives up to the expectations. In Jonny Evans, Manchester United has the former. A Manchester United youth graduate who has everything that a defender requires: two good feet, good awareness, commanding and a player who reads the game well.
Jonny Evans took the well-beaten road travelled by many other former academy graduates by moving to Royal Antwerp in the 2006/07 season. Having had successful spells there, Evans made the move to a Roy Keane-inspired Sunderland. Not only did the young Irishman impress Keane by starting 18 games (scored a goal), but he would also go on and win that year’s best youth player honour.
Rumours had it that his performances that season even led Keane to try lure the promising Irishman for a supposed fee of £10m (which is high for a 19-year old). During the season that saw Sunderland getting promoted to the Premier League, Keano had Evans in his plans and hence he tried to re-sign him on loan, only for Sir Alex Ferguson to feel the lad deserved to fight for a place in the starting eleven with Manchester United. Evans remained with United until January in the 2007/08 season. He was sent back to Sunderland again on loan, since he had his chances limited due to the remarkable run of the Vidic-Rio partnership putting in a string of solid performances, making them one of the best centre-half pairings the club has ever had under Sir Alex.
The 2008/09 season was crucial for Evans as he achieved what most United youth players wait for – a breakthrough in the first team. Evans made his league debut during the season against a formidable Chelsea team that contained the mercurial Didier Drogba for most of the game. From there, Evans went on to start 17 games and was one of the reasons Gerard Pique was allowed to move back to Barcelona.
Back then many United fans considered Evans to be better than Pique but since then, both these players had completely divergent campaigns. The 2009/10 season was when Evans really started living up to his early hype. He started 2 games more than he did during the previous season. But one could see a marked improvement in his performances in that season. Right from the number of tackles attempted to the success rate and minutes per defensive error, everything seemed to have changed in the right way for the Irishman. All the more, with the absence of Rio due to persistent back injuries, Jonny Evans formed a formidable partnership with Nemanja Vidic and led United to the cusp of Premier League glory. Many fans, including myself, felt that United had a gem in their midst.
With every rise, there is a fall. The performances started to dip in the following season. With Rio Ferdinand returning, the acquisition of Chris Smalling and some horrible performances from the Irishman, Evans began falling down the pecking order, even ushered close to the revolving doors of the club. Fans started getting frustrated. Ferguson even showed his frustration once on the pitch giving his infamous hair-dryer right in Jonny Evans’ face (Mind you, Phelan had to hold him back) during a Champions League fixture against AC Milan which United won 3-2. His lowest point, in a two season slump was when he got sent off in the 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, a moment that every United fan would love to forget.
As injuries sidelined Vidic, Smalling and Jones, Evans made the centre-back position his own once again and has gone from strength to strength since then. Rio Ferdinand had a penchant for an aberration or two and so did Nemanja Vidic but with age comes maturity, and we can definitely see the signs of a more mature Jonny Evans.
Jonny Evans definitely has something that Manchester United’s defence lacks at the moment – a defender who can comfortably come out of defence and start attacks from the back. It’s almost as if we’re watching a young Ferdinand all over again. As with most successful partnerships, there is always a bruiser and an artist. I’d love to watch Jones and Evans as our own bruiser-artist pair in the heart of our defence in the forthcoming years.
The artist in Evans has never been so apparent with many forward runs, and even a few brilliant cross-field passes. The greatest asset of Evans has constantly been on show during the past year. He did score 3 goals last season, most notably the one against Newcastle at St.James Park. His overall passing rate is what impressed me the most. For a defender, he had created 6 clear-cut chances in open play with an attacking zone pass completion of 77%, the highest of all defenders that played for the club last season.
Calmness on the ball, passing, organisation of the defence and his recently acquired goal threat during set plays have elevated Evans to a whole new level and made a statement, perhaps, to the fans and the gaffer, David Moyes. We can even see that leadership qualities in him (he has led Northern Ireland) and I won’t be surprised when he gets to wear the armband in another two years or so. It is safe to say now none of the Old Trafford faithful is worried about Pique’s move to Spain.
And some now may go as far as to say that Evans has shown why Pique was allowed to leave Manchester United. Having said that, Evans still has a long way to go in order to reach the level of Pique. Both these players have wonderful abilities on the ball and have exhibited good awareness in the box during set-pieces and score goals. These players, in my opinion, share similar weaknesses too. Both the players struggle to contain physical forwards. How many times have we seen Pique struggle against Ronaldo in the Clasico? Jonny Evans too has not been solid or at his comfort zone when playing against physical forwards. Carling Cup. 4-0. Carlton Cole. Remember?
All those good performances in the last season have rewarded him with an extension, a three and half year extension that would keep him until 2016. It would be interesting to see how David Moyes is going to select his centre-back pair having seen the Evans-Jones pair do well. With Rio and Vidic not getting any younger, it’s time we started playing Evans and Jones in the central defence more frequently. One thing is certain. Options are aplenty here unlike Everton. It is up to him to choose the right pair with the perfect mix of artistry and experience. Married at the age of 25, Evans has the world at his feet and some of the best central defensive partners alongside him who will only help to improve and motivate him to raise his game and become one of the best central defenders to ever come through the academy. The only thing standing in his way is his ability to handle adversity and whether he’s mature enough to get out of a rut faster than before, which I think he is. If he can take that and come out well, we could really be seeing one of the best defenders to have ever come out of our prestigious academy.