The one glaring problem for Manchester United last season was their defence. The revolving door that was last year’s back line has barely been tinkered with over the summer, and the final month of the transfer window may not bring any more changes. If the Red Devils wish to consistently compete for Champions League football after spending last season away from it, some analysis needs to be done on the defenders currently at the club. What can be improved upon going forward?
Left-Backs – Luke Shaw (20), Daley Blind (25)
Centre-Backs – Phil Jones (23), Chris Smalling (25), Marcus Rojo (26), Jonny Evans (27), Paddy McNair (20), Tyler Blackett (21)
Right-Backs – Matteo Darmian (25), Antonio Valencia (30), Guillermo Varela (22)
After the transfers of mainstay defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand before the 2014/15 season, Manchester United were left with the following players (exception: brand new summer signing Matteo Darmian) to hold the line in front of star goalkeeper David de Gea. As the season began, the results were less than stellar. One win in their first five matches, including an opening day drop to Swansea City and the massive 5-3 loss to Leicester City. Coupled with the 4-0 smashing by MK Dons in their first League Cup match, and the state of the season was in dire condition.
This was, to a certain extent, to be expected. These players were young, and there were many injuries that prevented the development of a partnership in the back line. Luke Shaw didn’t play until late fall and never came back to full speed. All of the centre-backs were either hurt or suspended at some point last season. Manager Louis van Gaal almost entirely prevented then-rostered Rafael from getting into the side. Consistency was not synonymous with Manchester United’s defence.
There was improvement, of course. With some slippery spots over the course of the season, the Red Devils were strong enough to break back into the top 4. Big wins over Arsenal and Liverpool in the fall and Tottenham and Liverpool in the spring helped assert their fourth-place position in the table. With only one win in their last five games, however, United finished the season as unspectacularly as it began. Losses to Everton and West Brom before a final day scoreless draw at now-relegated Hull City created a lull going into the summer.
Most importantly, though, they made it back into the Champions League.
The defensive statistics tell a narrative that’s no fun for fans to hear. 37 goals allowed, and more if de Gea weren’t in incredible form all season long. A poor away record stands out strongly as well. United conceded more goals than they scored when away from home last season and only won 32% of those matches. The pressure on the young squad ran high from the first day to the very last.
That pressure strengthens every day Van Gaal doesn’t improve the core of defenders he has at his disposal. Unless the paper talk is true and some combination of Varane, Hummels, Hoewedes, Ramos, and Vlaar are on their way to Old Trafford, the gaffer has largely ignored this area of the pitch. While strengthening a midfield that desperately needed to be balanced, Van Gaal looks to be placing his trust in the current set of defenders.
The question has to be asked whether this is the right decision, and it needs to be asked daily. There were players among the defense that showed promise last season, no doubt. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have quality to them, to be sure. Marcus Rojo, though a bit of an unknown, impressed before he was injured last season. Daley Blind excelled in the left-back position while Antonio Valencia had his bright moments on the right. But the consistency from those players simply wasn’t there, and the upcoming 2015/16 season will require it.
United have potentially bought more goals and creativity in Memphis Depay as well as some defensive solidarity in Darmian. These acquisitions will help, without question. But the most important United signings, however, have been Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. After fans and manager alike witnessed the vital importance of Michael Carrick in the defensive midfield role, van Gaal purchased two very influential midfielders for that position. Schweinsteiger, perhaps the lesser of the two signings (though not in international stature, to be sure), plays a more creative, ball-recycling midfield role that will help the Red Devils retain possession and transition into the attack. Dutch international Schneiderlin, on the other hand, can play both the bruising destroyer and the wandering playmaker of his new German counterpart. Include Carrick into this new midfield rotation, and the defence is now much better protected than last season. Rather than purchasing new defenders, perhaps Van Gaal will be relying on these three to protect the back line well enough for those young talents to blossom.
In a much brighter tone, I must say that the youth of the squad is as much a bright spot as it is a worry. Youth in defence, especially the centre-back position, tends to be a nervy choice. Quick decision-making and an awareness of the entire pitch is necessary for excellence, and that often is cultivated by experience. But looking at those aforementioned talents in this United side, time and proper grooming is possibly all they’ll need to find that success. If Louis van Gaal is willing to place his trust in those currently at the Old Trafford, perhaps there will be a different tune sung by pundits when talking about the United defence. But, in equal proportion, perhaps the song will be the same.