F ourFourTwo recently published a list of the 10 best right backs in the world today. Top 10 lists are always subjective, but nonetheless this one is a good indicator of the players who are currently excelling at right-back. Come the summer transfer window it wouldn’t be a surprise if José Mourinho looked to strengthen his options at full-back, but if he looks for a target from that list he’ll find that his options are limited.
After all, according to FourFourTwo, he already has the fourth best right-back in the world at his disposal. Meanwhile, it’s hard to foresee Manchester City, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich selling off their first choice full-backs, and there’s little sense in Mourinho targeting Stephan Lichtsteiner since he’s older than Valencia.
It leaves few options for José to chase next summer. Thomas Meunier could come in for consideration should PSG look to balance the books, while Djibril Sidibe from Monaco would presumably be available at the right price. Šime Vrsaljko impressed at Sassuolo and is establishing himself at Atlético Madrid, so he may be difficult to prise away from the Spanish club, while Ricardo Pereira would have to negotiate the step up in quality from the Primeira Liga to the Premier League.
It’s conceivable that Mourinho could dip into the transfer market for a rough diamond, but as a general rule of thumb he prefers a player who is as close to the final product as possible.
"Despite making just 13 starts in the league this season, Fosu-Mensah’s work off the pitch could still prove to be beneficial when he returns home."
Yet, the United manager has scarce options at his disposal beyond Valencia. Matteo Darmian has disappointed at right-back, while Victor Lindelöf doesn’t look particularly comfortable in the role. Axel Tuanzebe has been largely ignored and Ashley Young is at best a stop gap, though a capable one.
There is, however, another player capable of slotting in at right-back when he returns from his loan in the summer: Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
Fosu-Mensah’s time at Crystal Palace this season has been full of drama. Initially, the Dutchman was meant to develop his game under the watchful gaze of countryman Frank de Boer. The de Boer experiment was an unmitigated disaster at Palace and he was sacked after losing his first four Premier League games without his side scoring. In came former England manager Roy Hodgson and Fosu-Mensah initially had a tough time re-establishing himself in the team after missing the game against his parent club Manchester United in September.
Indeed, Fosu-Mensah’s lack of playing time meant that United considered recalling the Dutchman only for the defender to complete the full 90 against Manchester City, Southampton, Burnley and Arsenal as well as Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup.
Despite making just 13 starts in the league this season, Fosu-Mensah’s work off the pitch could still prove to be beneficial when he returns home. Hodgson is once again proving his ability to organise mediocre teams, with Palace recovering from that disastrous start.
“Some people are session coaches and some are team coaches,” explained Terry Burton, a member of Hodgson’s backroom staff at West Bromwich Albion. “Session coaches will put on a passing drill or a possession practice while team coaches will coach a function of the team, such as getting full-backs to support wide players or midfielders. In terms of the team coaches I’ve worked with, I would put Roy at the top. He’s very good at getting players to understand their role within the team.”
The key takeaway is Hodgson’s insistence that players know what they have to do with and without the ball. Fosu-Mensah seems to be taking on board the requirement to develop a sense of tactical discipline, while allying it to his undoubted natural talent.
It is an experience that could prove invaluable when the young defender returns to Old Trafford in the summer. Coupled with Fosu-Mensah’s time at right-back, where he has featured most often, the youngster could well fit into Mourinho’s footballing outlook more seamlessly than in the past.
After all, Fosu-Mensah has all the tools. There’s his natural pace, for one. In a team filled with zippy players Fosu-Mensah’s teammates at Palace have marveled at the defender’s pure speed. “Timi’s quick,” noted Ruben Loftus-Cheek when asked to name Palace’s fastest player. Meanwhile, former United player Wilfried Zaha added that “someone will be through one on one with the goalkeeper and he’ll come steaming in from nowhere and just tackle him. His pace is ridiculous!”
Fosu-Mensah’s ability to bounce back from adversity has also been overlooked. He has fought for a first team spot at Palace during a difficult time for the club. It demonstrates a battle-hardened mentality that should find favour with Mourinho next season.
The key for Fosu-Mensah now is to earn a sustained run in the Palace first team during the second half of the season. He needs to gain some much needed match experience to go with the lessons being picked up on the training ground.
If Fosu-Mensah makes the most of his loan at Selhurst Park then he’ll return to Old Trafford a more Mourinho-style player than when he left. He’ll be a defender with a greater appreciation of positional play and one who can quickly respond to transitions in play, to supplement the attack or get back and defend.
Fosu-Mensah has youth on his side, potential to realise and an opportunity to establish himself as the natural heir to Valencia, if not take the right-back slot outright. The Dutchman has the tools to be a defender in the Mourinho mold, but the onus for the remainder of this season is for Mensah to pass his latest test.
Succeed and the rewards for both player and club could be immense.