Otamendi, Gimenez, Hummels, Laporte, Dragovic.
Transfer windows come and transfer windows go. But what refuses to pass is the who’s who of the footballing world’s centre-backs being linked to Manchester United. Three months and a bit still remain for the action to shift from the green under millionaire studs to the green inside billionaire bank accounts. That hasn’t stopped the tabloids from earning their bucks of course, and the aforementioned names have constantly been taken in the same breath as Manchester United.
While tabloid rumours are always to be taken with a generous pinch of salt, the columnists bank chiefly on two criteria to enhance their ‘clickability’. The story must generate excitement & hope, and the story must seem at least likely, if not believable. Thus, besides the spending and attracting potential of the club, the rumours are often an indication of the glaring gaps in the squad as well.
For instance, the ubiquitous links to the likes of Vidal, Koke and Gundogan from the summer and beyond are conspicuous by their relative absence. This is a direct consequence of the now-established Carrick-Herrera duo having lent stability in that area, with Blind providing steady, if not eye-catching, back up. The continued barrage of centre-back links, on the other hand, are open insults that United’s centre-backs must endure on a daily basis as testament to the lack of sufficient quality in their position. In pure numbers, United have been among the top defensive units in the league this season. However, the miserliness is rightly attributed more to David De Gea’s heroics, than the personnel assigned to protect him. It is rare to find a United fan who believes the current options provide a permanent solution.
Despite the multi-million pound centre-back deals garnishing United rumour mills in the summer, the only name ultimately signed was Marcos Rojo. With no disrespect to the Argentinian who has provided a fair share of impressive displays this season, circumstances conspired to ensure that United had to scroll pretty low down in their summer wishlist. Now however, wins over Spurs and Liverpool have put the lucrative Champions League within sight again. With a stable manager at the helm as well, one would be surprised if United did not pull off at least one blockbuster signing in central defence this summer. De Gea, for one, will definitely have his fingers crossed.
In that event, it is highly unlikely that United will hold on to all of their current crop. As a vastly superior option is introduced at the club, at least will be deemed surplus to requirements and pushed out the revolving door. The focus of this article is to find the one closest to the exit door, based on this season’s performances; the one who, come July, will most likely find himself flinching every time the owner/manager’s name flashes on their phone.
A host of players have been asked to play at centre-back for United this season, be it as part of the infamous back three or at the centre of the more conventional back four. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair have all had their shot at the position over the course of the season.
Michael Carrick and Daley Blind can be safely assumed to have been temporary, emergency back-ups in the middle of the astonishing early season injury-room pile-up. Tyler Blackett has impressed whenever given the chance and is clearly seen as one for the future. He was recently handed a bumper, reportedly £20,000-a-week contract extension upto 2017, with an option of an extra year. Even as loan offers continue to pour in for the Englishman, it is highly unlikely he will be offloaded permanently from the club books this summer.
Paddy McNair too, barring the nightmare 39 mins against Southampton, has inspired confidence in his abilities whenever asked to prove himself. At one point of time, not many would have bet on McNair to break into the first-team before more fancied academy names such as Michael Keane and Tom Thorpe. But no one can fault him for confirming Van Gaal’s faith in him. Van Gaal recently claimed McNair had the potential to be Man Utd’s premier right back option for a decade. McNair also drew praise from Gary Neville for his goal and overall display in the recent 2-1 win for the U-21s over Liverpool, where he played roles both in midfield and defence. Having started his career as a number 10, he possesses the kind of composure on the ball so vital to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’. He continues to be used in a variety of roles and is the kind of multi-purpose option that Van Gaal adores. It is safe to say he won’t be leaving permanently this summer either.
Marcos Rojo has been played whenever fit this season, having put in the most league minutes among the centre-back options. He owes it both to his relatively superior fitness and the manager’s faith in him. He has put in tenacious, determined performances, ready to sink his teeth into every challenge, while generally showing composure in possession. He is the only natural left-footer of the regular centre-backs, and Van Gaal has expressed his strong preference for one at the left centre-back role. Additionally, he offers versatility as a left-back as well, and his rough edges are hoped to iron themselves out in a future surely to be in a Manchester United jersey beyond this summer. He is not only a new signing, but a Van Gaal one. He will be given time.
The rest of the analysis thus focusses primarily on the three heads that still remain under the guillotine- Evans, Jones and Smalling. Rojo has been included as well, merely to assist in comparison.
(all statistics below are per 90 mins)
Smalling has used his obvious height advantage to great effect all season, and leads his teammates in dominating aerial duels. Leading in both absolute and percentage terms, he not only gets in most duels, but also wins them more often than not. While Evans and Jones come close behind in percentages, they show a hesitation to go for aerial balls. Rojo falls significantly behind the others in winning his duels, but has shown great willingness to go for every ball and put pressure on the opponents. He wins nearly as many duels in total as Smalling.
On the ground, the numbers show why Evans has for so long seemed like the one who would step up as United’s solution. He wins the most tackles, loses the least and gives away the least fouls. As in the air, Rojo never hesitates to go in for a tackle, but wins nearly as many as he loses. These are the rough edges one hopes he will iron out over time. It is much easier to coach a player’s skills to win a higher percentage of tackles than to coach a player’s will to get into them. Jones has very similar stats to Rojo in ground tackles, while Smalling doesn’t go into as many tackles and loses twice as many as he wins, a clear weakness.
All in all, Smalling dominates in the air but is hesitant on the ground, Rojo and Evans rule on the ground but are weak in the air, and Rojo is nearly there everywhere.
Jones has by far the highest number of interceptions per game, displaying an often over-looked, astute reading of the game. While Rojo comes relatively close, Smalling is quite far back, with Evans even further. Smalling dominates by a distance in blocks and clearances though.
In defensive errors, Jones has been surprisingly flawless (the system’s definition of an error clearly interprets his rocket back-pass to De Gea in the Spurs game as well-intended). Smalling is close, Rojo continues to show his rough edges, but Evans shows the kind of numbers that have come to define his current image of a defender not in control. Making a defensive error once every 3 games have contributed heavily to the hapless aura that has accompanied him since that ill-fated night against Milton Keynes. That none of these errors have lead to a goal is further evidence of the impenetrable shield De Gea has put on at times this season.
Jones and Smalling acquit themselves well in this area and Rojo again is there and thereabouts in most parts. But Evans is by far the biggest loser here.
Composure on the ball:
Moving from the defensive to the attacking side of their games, at the core of Van Gaal’s philosophy is possession-based football. Keeping in line with the Dutch school of Total Football, he expects his defenders, and centre-backs in particular, to be the first line of attack. Composure on the ball, and the ability to initiate attacks from deep is therefore an essential attribute of a centre-back in a Van Gaal side.
The numbers show how Smalling is the most composed on the ball. Rojo leads in chances created, a number possibly boosted by his stints at left-back. However Smalling bosses all the ‘composure’ stats. The most take-ons attempted and completed successfully (both in absolute and percentage terms), the longest passing range and the highest pass completion. Jones is the closest to Smalling in all these areas. Rojo however seems averse to running with the ball, with the fewest successful take-ons and a low success rate as well. Evans, however, again does little to help his case. Creating nearly nothing going forward, he also has the least success rate for take-ons. His pass completion isn’t superior to his peers. The sheer number of passes out, in spite of that, works against him in a way, signifying his lack of confidence on the ball and a hesitation in taking it forward.
Smalling comes out on top again, while Jones moves the ball out of defence well too and Rojo creates a fair share of chances. Evans must be nervously checking his phone already.
Direct attacking threat:
A quick look at the direct attacking contributions present quite a woeful figure overall. A combined total of zero assists with only Smalling chipping in with any goals (3 in total) paints a bleak picture. Rojo, as always, isn’t behind for lack of trying. Jones and Evans however have barely had a sighter at goal all season.
Smalling is great in the air, alert in his blocks and clearances and the most comfortable of them on the ball. He provides a decent attacking threat as well, especially from set-pieces. Based on just this season’s performances, particularly the more recent ones, it would be quite a surprise if he were asked to leave.
Rojo, while not standing out in any particular area, has the best all-round game of the current options. He’s nearly there at the top in most areas, and his desire to compete and improve should give further confidence to the management in his potential to develop further.
Jones’ season, while being a mixed bag, has been pretty decent as well. Good in his tackles, great in interceptions and clearances, decently comfortable in possession, backing himself to play the ball out of the defence, and low on errors too. He does have to work on his aerial ability though, and subsequently in providing a goal threat from set-pieces. He does seem to have done enough to hold up a place. It will be a tough call from the management to choose from Jones and Smalling if a second centre-back must leave in the summer.
And then there is Jonny Evans, poor Jonny Evans. In a season rampaged by injuries, he has played the least minutes of the four. His only point of excellence has been his tackling ability. Everywhere else he has been dismally poor. To add to the numbers, he has carried the image of a defender in shambles ever since the MK Dons game. To override that kind of performance requires a run of the kind Evans has been nowhere near. With his controversial 6 game ban now in place, he will barely get any opportunity to change opinions either. Nothing seems to be running in his favour right now. Barring a stunning failure at Manchester United’s end in signing a world-class centre-back, Evans should be adding to the nearly exhaustive list of players in the Capital One Cup team to have been shown the door.
While the analysis seems to have given clear indications, any attempt at second-guessing the management’s thinking will be mere conjecture. As United seek to make the quantum leap from pretenders to champions next season, reinforcement must start from the weakest link. The players will know more than anyone else that it is inevitable that heads will roll come July. The question is not if, but where the guillotine will fall. And as the last few training sessions at Carrington begin to unfold, you can be sure at least three players will not be affording themselves a moment’s break.
(Statistics courtesy Squawka)