Case For The Defence

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By Matthew Jones

MIDFIELD is the stick most often used to beat Manchester United with, but it’s become clear this season that our troubles are not simply confined to the middle of the park.

There are also big issues at the back. As revealed today, Nemanja Vidic will definitely be leaving Old Trafford this summer, while I would chance my arm and say Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra will be accompanying him through the exit doors.

That would mean three players in the same area of the pitch leaving the club, so it will be vital to bring in replacements.

One United fan I follow on Twitter said that if the trio all depart at the end of the current campaign, that would be three world class defenders leaving Old Trafford in one transfer window. However, that that doesn’t sound as disastrous as it reads because as I’m sure we’ll all agree, none of them have been world class for a few years now.

In their pomp, all three were leaders, warriors, pillars of strength and feared opponents. Vidic and Ferdinand has been one of the greatest central defensive partnerships in Premier League history, while Evra has been one of the best ambassadors of the club on and off the pitch in recent memory.

By contrast, the powers of all three have waned significantly as they’ve meandered through their 30s.

Vidic has had to deal with two serious knee injuries, and although he’s recovered sufficiently enough to be able to regain his stance as a key part of the first team fold, he has never really looked the fearsome and unbeatable competitor he was for much of his Reds’ career.

Ferdinand has suffered even more with injuries, and while he enjoyed one of his best ever campaigns in a United shirt as we collected our 20th title last year, and was a rock while others in his position only played fleeting roles throughout the season, the fact Sir Alex Ferguson and his medical team have had to compromise Rio’s time on the field in a bid to battle the inevitable decline in his physical prowess over the last few years has taken its toll. This season, he has looked a shadow of the player he has been during a stellar United career, with his loss of pace and concentration being worryingly exposed in several early games this season, most notably in the 1-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in December.

As for Evra, he recovered his form last season, having had a jittery two years following the bitter Luis Suarez race case, the fact he received the brunt of criticism over the turmoil between players and management that hindered France’s 2010 World Cup campaign, and the death of his brother in October 2011. However, his effectiveness as an attacking full back, his superb aerial ability for someone so slight and his knack of scoring goals has papered over the cracks of the fact that his pace and defensive capabilities (after all the number one priority for a full back) have been found increasingly wanting over the last two or three years.

The problem David Moyes has, in addition to refreshing ageing or stale areas of the squad, is that for one reason or another, the next generation of defensive talent is either not yet quite in that top bracket of the three men who have been the main United captains of the last decade, or will never get there.

Niggling injuries have hampered the progress of every single one of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Rafael and Jonny Evans.

The latter two are the pair I would argue are closest to being part of the elite United ilk. Evans has had his doubters in the past but he defied them to have an impressive 2012/13 season, while the only Da Silva twin now left at Old Trafford, Rafael, also made his critics eat their words as he displayed improved defensive nous last season, as well as showing he has both the energy to get forward to support attacks, as the modernised version of today’s full backs are expected to do, and the feisty Brazilian also has an eye for goal too.

Both have suffered injury setbacks this season, plus, in a campaign where United’s frailties without Sir Alex Ferguson have been brutally exposed, both are probably finding that they have slipped back a few steps in their progress and will have to prove their worth and talent all over again.

You have to feel sorry for the other two players, Smalling and Jones, whose young United careers have either been blighted by trips to the treatment room or burdened by the curse of versatility, with both frequently being used out of their natural and favoured position of centre back.

While issues at the centre of defence are perhaps a recent conundrum, brought to the fore because of frailties identified and attacked in this transitional season, a new or back-up left back has been needed for a while, and not solely due to Evra’s waning influence and powers. Alexander Büttner has not once shown that he has the ability to succeed at Old Trafford, while Rafael’s twin brother Fabio’s Reds’ career never really got off the ground due to injury.

A left back has and is being sought. Moyes persistently pursued former charge Leighton Baines all last summer, but that project was finally abandoned when he signed a new contract with Everton during the January transfer window, while attentions have now turned to one of the latest prototypes off the Southampton production line, Luke Shaw.

Many critics, neutrals and fans have, since today’s announcement by Vidic, commented that United need two like for like replacements in the summer. I don’t necessarily agree with this, as I’m willing to invest in the continued development of Jones, Smalling and Evans, all of whom certainly have the ability to fully establish themselves as a first team certainty. Elsewhere, some of the lesser known defensive talents in the younger age bracket at United might believe the departures of several senior figures will give them a platform to stake a first team berth – most notably Michael Keane and Tom Thorpe.

On top of a left back, you’d think there’d be at least a move for one central defender in the summer, meaning in all likelihood that two new defenders will be acquired. Being one of the biggest clubs in the world, there’s not a day that passes when the club is not linked with 100 different names. But of the recurring players we’ve been linked with over, say, the last year, you’d have to think the leading names in terms of defenders that could arrive in July or August would be the likes of Shaw, Ezequiel Garay, Eliaquim Mangala, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotić or Giorgio Chiellini, just to name a few.

I’m not going to speculate in depth, I’ll leave the complex job of negotiating and sealing transfers up to the money men, plus I’m not one for getting excited until I see the player shaking hands with the manager and holding a United shirt in the foreground of the Old Trafford pitch.

One thing is abundantly clear though. With the area of midfield having dominated gossip columns, feature columns and any other column concerning United like no other in the last five years, the confirmed departure of Vidic and expected exits of Rio and Pat later this year provides a whole new fire for Moyes to extinguish.

Whatever happens, there’s no doubting that the plans Moyes probably had already put in motion for squad development or at least fine tuning last summer could, by the end of this season, start turning into more of a revolution.

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