Manchester United’s defensive frailties were hideously exposed once more on Sunday, as a rampant Leicester City team plundered four goals in less than thirty second half minutes to compound United’s woes. It was the first time in the history of the Premier League that the Red Devils had lost a match in which they had, at one stage, held a two goal advantage.
It’s no exaggeration to state that United are currently in the midst of a defensive crisis. For the next match, at home to West Ham this coming Saturday, they will be without injured pair Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, with Tyler Blackett also missing through suspension. Chris Smalling has only just recovered from a groin problem, and looked far from comfortable on his return to the first team last weekend. Van Gaal still has limited options at the back, and it’s likely that Marcos Rojo will fill in at centre-back, with Luke Shaw or Daley Blind deployed in the left-back position. Van Gaal can ill afford to lose any more components of his crumbling defence.
United have conceded eight goals in their opening five fixtures, with only Everton, QPR, Crystal Palace and Newcastle conceding more. The pressure is well and truly on Van Gaal to plug the giant holes that are frequently appearing in front of David De Gea, but with the January transfer window some way off, he’ll have to do this with his existing resources.
Phil Jones was arguably United’s best defender in the opening three matches of the season, as United conceded an average of just one goal per match against Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley. Jones was once tipped by Sir Alex Ferguson to become one of United’s all time greats and although this looks unlikely at the moment, the England international is still just twenty-two years of age. If he can stay clear of injury, an extended run in the first team looks a certainty as he looks to justify the £17 million Fergie splashed out on him in June 2011.
Jonny Evans is a different type of centre-back entirely, and was given his chance after progressing through United’s youth system. Evans, like Jones, loves a tackle but on his day is a much more elegant defender. In theory, they should be the perfect foil for each other, just as Vidic and Ferdinand were at the heart of United’s defence. Evans’ biggest weakness is his decision making, highlighted by his red card in the Manchester derby, hauling down Balotelli which eventually led to City running riot in a 6-1 demolition. Evans will also be known, unfortunately for him, as part of the team embarrassed by MK Dons in the League Cup this year. The Northern Irishman has impressed over the years when he’s been granted an extended run in the side, and is a far better player when his confidence levels are high. At 26 however, you’d suspect that unless he nails down one of the centre-half positions soon, there could be serious question marks over his future at the club.
Chris Smalling is yet to show anywhere near the levels expected of him at Old Trafford, and is currently synonymous with David Moyes’ long-ball antics of last season, when he frequently hoofed the ball up the pitch from his unfavoured right-back position to little effect. In fact, Smalling’s distribution in general is definitely an area highlighted for improvement. In his defence – no pun intended – he has been played out of position, and is yet to experience an extended run at centre-back. At times he resembles a newborn foal discovering the use of its legs for the first time, but he certainly has the physique and the talent to succeed, though it remains to be seen whether or not he has the application.
Jones, Evans and Smalling all bring different strengths and weaknesses to Van Gaal’s side, but they have one crucial factor in common; their penchant for picking up injuries. Jones won’t return to the United fold for another three weeks, and it’s been announced recently that Evans too will be out for a similar period. It doesn’t matter how talented they are if they’re not on the pitch.
The three players averaged just twenty-five league starts between them last season. It remains to be seen just how long Van Gaal can rely on three players who seem to be picking up more injuries than Mike Dean issues yellow cards.
The emergence of Tyler Blackett has been fast-tracked due to the aforementioned injury list, but he has impressed in fits and starts. It’s hard to judge a young lad thrown into a team with a rotten defensive core, factored in with the fact that he’s had to adapt to playing in a back three at the start of the season. Blackett looks more comfortable at centre-half, but was exposed by the lack of discipline from the remaining defenders against Leicester. He made a perfectly timed tackle in the first half when Rojo was found wanting further up the pitch, but showed his naivety with a crude hack at the impressive Vardy to concede a penalty, and received the first red card of his senior career.
Rojo too will need time to adjust to the Premier League – just as his predecessor in the left-back position, Patrice Evra did. Nobody that watched Evra’s debut performance away at Manchester City would have predicted just how important the Frenchman would become to United, as he cemented his place in the back four. Rojo too is a talented individual, as is anybody who represents their country in the World Cup final. His time for judgement will come at the end of the season – not before.
Another option at left-back is teenager Luke Shaw. It’s safe to say that Van Gaal hasn’t protected the 19 year old in public, criticising his fitness levels during pre-season. These sentiments were echoed by England manager Roy Hodgson, before Shaw picked up a hamstring injury, ironically during extra training sessions to improve his fitness. He should make his debut against West Ham, and will be looking to show his considerable talent over the coming weeks.
It also remains to be seen if Van Gaal will keep the faith with Rafael at right-back. The Brazilian conceded a penalty at Leicester, despite being barged over with similar force just prior to the incident. Van Gaal however refused to criticise Mark Clattenburg, instead focusing his attentions on Rafael’s clumsy challenge. Antonio Valencia is waiting in the wings should Van Gaal decide to change things up against West Ham.
In front of the defence, Daley Blind looked more troubled when the game was stretched against Leicester than he did against unadventurous QPR, and was often left with too much to do. In matches against ‘bigger’ teams, he will surely be given more assistance. Like Rojo, it is far too early to judge whether or not Blind will be a success, either in defence or midfield.
So who could United bring in to bolster the defensive ranks?
Well, City new boy Eliaquim Mangala showed that splashing out £30 million on a defender is sometimes a necessity to succeed at the top end of the Premier League. Mangala made an assured debut alongside Vincent Kompany as Diego Costa was shackled at the Etihad. Mangala was rumoured to be interesting United in the summer, along with Medhi Benatia who joined Bayern Munich. Dejan Lovren joined Liverpool, while Thomas Vermaelen left Arsenal to join Barcelona, although it remains to be seen if the Belgian stays fit throughout the season.
The favourite to join Van Gaal at Old Trafford is Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels. The German international impressed at the World Cup, and was inspirational in Dortmund’s recent run to the Champions League final. His speed may be of some concern in the fast-paced Premier League, but he is an excellent reader of the game and can provide the leadership that is severely lacking in United’s defence. Hummels won’t come cheap, and it remains to be seen if Dortmund will be prepared to sell, or if indeed the German wants to leave Champions League football to come to Manchester. Expect the rumour mill to kick into overdrive during January.
Ron Vlaar is another name recently rumoured to be on Van Gaal’s shopping list. The Dutchman was inspired against Argentina in the World Cup semi-final, despite ending up on the losing side. At 29, Vlaar isn’t a long term solution, but he certainly has the attributes to boost United’s leaky defence, and as it stands is out of contract in summer 2015. He could be a much cheaper option than Hummels.
Other names have been thrown into the mix in recent weeks. Raphael Varane of Real Madrid is an assured defender but has also struggled with injury. Virgil Van Dijk at Celtic and Ryan Shawcross at Stoke have also been discussed, although they are yet to play at the highest level.
It remains to be seen who, if anybody is brought in come January. In the meantime, Van Gaal drastically needs to find a way to sure up United’s charitable defence to ensure that Champions League football remains a feasible goal. A clean sheet against West Ham would go some way to shifting the focus from the ‘Keystone Cops’ defending, and onto the impressive array of attacking talent currently in operation at the right end of the pitch.