Back in summer 2010 there was, for a brief period, no more hated man in France than Patrice Evra. Fingered as the ring-leader in the now infamous FIFA World Cup 2010 training ground ‘strike’, the Manchester United left-back quickly descended from persona non grata after France was knocked out of the tournament, to something much more invidious: the fall guy for French failure.
The episode was far from Evra’s fault, of course, with the disparate French squad always likely to mutiny against Raymond Domenech’s inadequate regime. But, as captain, Evra’s was a senior responsibility, and with that comes accountability. First came the media judgement, then former players, and then the Fédération Française de Football (FFF). With French politicians finally wading in, the five match ban handed down by FFF to Evra in August 2010 was unsurprising.
“I gave my all to the position of captain,” Evra told L’Equipe on receiving the ban.
“Some people have tried to make me look guiltier than I am without knowing what happened. I gave my best, but this is the result. I received complaints after every training session and I tried to pass those messages on to the coaching assistants, but nothing happened.”
It was not the passionate, sometimes angry, Evra that United fans have come to know, and love. This was something far too morose. Evra, it seemed, carried the burden of failure, not only for France’s early exit, but the inability to unite a divided squad with an aloof coaching unit.
Indeed, something was seemingly lost from Evra’s soul in the week’s and months after the World Cup. It was as if a weight was resting far too heavily on the Dakar-born defender’s shoulders. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that the left-back’s form in the early of part of the 2010-11 campaign was as poor as it has ever been in the United shirt. Not that Evra’s name was anything less than first of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team sheet. There were – still are – few competitors for the Frenchman’s shirt.
Yet, Evra’s mental anguish could not explain a slump so severe in a player with justifiable claims to be not only Ashley Cole’s superior, but the world’s finest left-back. Perhaps, then, it was the double whammy of mental and physical fatigue that so affected Evra last season. After all, the defender played 48 games in all competitions in 2010-11, adding to the 51 played in the season before, and the 48 prior to that. Together with international commitments, Evra has made more than 300 appearances in the past six years alone.
At least by the time United secured a 19th trophy in May 2011 Evra had clawed his way out of the doldrums, playing a core role in Ferguson’s back-four, which conceded less than a goal a game in the campaign. This brief renaissance wasn’t to last though, with even a summer-long rest failing to reunite Evra with the peak he attained in three outstanding campaigns for United prior to World Cup 2010.
One thing’s certain though, pressure, whether physical, or that of a more cerebral nature, is now following Evra’s every move. Following an uncertain start to the campaign, with a new goalkeeper and ever-changing back-four bedding in, came the incident with Luis Suárez at Anfield in October. The tension in Evra’s play was understandably palpable. The 30-year-old, it seems, cannot catch a break.
Even Evra’s patch of good form through January, after the damning Suárez indictment, cannot disguise what may now amount to a more permanent decline.
At Anfield last weekend Evra allowed Dirk Kuyt to run past him and smash home the winning goal. The Frenchman looked broken. Worse came against Chelsea, with the United defender at least partially culpable for each of the host’s three goals.
First, Evra was beaten all too easily inside the area by Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge. Then the defender was at least five yards short of Fernando Torres’ cross for Juan Mata to smash home Chelsea’s second. Finally, almost criminally, Evra stood still allowing David Luiz to run into the Frenchman’s zone and head home the third almost unchallenged.
True, the defender made some amends by bursting into the Chelsea area and winning United an opening penalty. But this is a pattern now far too common; Evra’s attacking instincts remain intact, but gone is the defensive concentration that once made the Frenchman the complete modern full-back.
Despite the ongoing problem, there is little question that Evra will face short-term demotion. Nor as yet is there any great clamour for it. After all, there is little competition for the defender’s spot, with only the perennially injured Fábio da Silva and inexperienced Ezekiel Fryers also at Ferguson’s disposal.
But the story may change come the summer should Ferguson dip into the transfer market. This is no easy concept for United fans to countenance. Evra is well loved at Old Trafford, both in the dressing room and the stands; the Frenchman is an engaging personality, and although it has not always been the case, committed to United’s cause.
Change is not without precedent though – one need only ask the previous incumbent of Evra’s position, Gabriel Heinze. And there were more than a few eyebrows raised when Aly Cissokho’s agent, last month, name-checked United as a potential destination for the Olympique Lyonnais left-back.
Potential transfer activity is for later this year though. The real question in the short-term is whether, like Michael Carrick, Evra can rediscover his old drive and focus. While Evra remains, marginally some might argue, an asset to United, more goals such as those conceded at Stamford Bridge may just tip the balance.