As RC Lens president Gervais Martel confirmed this week, Manchester United made an official, if ultimately unsuccessful, approach for 18-year old centre back Raphaël Varane. Lens has initially rebuffed United’s offer and Varane’s skills seem certain to be on parade at Real Madrid next season. Perhaps it is for the best. After all, signing a second young centre-back this transfer window would have left manager Sir Alex Ferguson with a huge number of central defensive options.
Space in Ferguson’s squad is likely to be made first through the departures of Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa seems the most likely destination for Brown, while Sunderland manager Steve Bruce will follow-up interest in O’Shea, despite the Irishman playing over 30 games last season and only signing a new contract last October.
Though both are regarded with affection among United fans, moves away from Old Trafford are not especially surprising. The rationale behind moving older players on to make way for youth and re-development is hardly an alien concept at United, particularly under Ferguson. The list of remaining senior options encompasses six recognised defenders, some of whom will look towards rosier futures than others.
Embarking on what must be his last attempt to forge a United career, Ritchie De Laet will depart on loan again, although this time at Premier League side Norwich. De Laet has shown hints of ability in six first team appearances to date but being farmed out on loan suggests he may not truly feature in Ferguson’s plans. A good season for De Laet at the Premier League new-boys will only encourage the club to let him go next summer; an excellent season though, and Ferguson may yet reconsider the youngster’s future.
Another centre-back whose United future appears much more assured is Chris Smalling. A brilliant début season, unexpected by seemingly everyone bar Ferguson and his backroom staff, speaks for itself. Regular stints filling in for Rio Ferdinand offer Smalling the chance to form a solid defensive partnership with Nemanja Vidic, which looked unbeatable at times. While Jonny Evans’ rapid decline, after a similarly impressive first two seasons at the club, implores a sense of caution when anticipating Smalling’s bright future. Yet, all signs so far suggest the former Fulham man will be a top quality United centre-back for years to come.
Conversely, the career path of the man Smalling so often deputised for last season seems much less predictable. Ferdinand demonstrated, towards to back-end of last season, that he still has the quality to be one of the best in the world in his position. Once again fitness was Ferdinand’s biggest concern last season and there will be no shortage of competition if the former West Ham United man struggles to maintain a long run of games.
Alternatively, as with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in recent years, Ferguson may choose to use Ferdinand ever more sparingly in a bid to ensure the defender is fit for big games at home and in Europe. Either way, the coming year could be a defining one for the 32-year-old defender, particularly in determining whether Ferdinand will still be part of the Old Trafford setup beyond next summer or not.
Meanwhile, Evans’ future appears to be balanced even more precariously than Ferdinand’s. After a year of underwhelming performances, coupled with the acquisitions of Smalling and Phil Jones, the Northern Ireland international appears to have lost his place in the manager’s plans. That Ferguson countenanced a bid for Varane should concern Evans even more.
It was all so much brighter after an excellent first senior season, including outstanding performances in games such as the 3-0 league victory over Chelsea – where a formidable Didier Drogba was kept uncharacteristically quiet – prompted Ferguson to state that Evans’ “United future is assured.”
The defender’s past exploits should be enough to buy Evans another season at the club. Though older than Smalling or Jones, Evans is still young at 23, with plenty of time to develop. After all, Vidic was playing at Serbian SuperLiga level at the same age. While these factors may work in Evans’ favour, it is still likely that opportunities will be intermitent in the coming season; he will need to grab them with both hands.
Jones’ acquisition is partly responsible for prompting the state of minor panic regarding Evans’ future. The England under-21 player arrives from Blackburn Rovers with natural talent in abundance, and was described by Harry Redknapp as “a future England captain” in the aftermath of Tottenham Hotspur’s failed bid to lure the 19-year old to White Hart Lane.
Ferguson admitted that high levels of interest elsewhere forced United to sign the youngster a year earlier than he would have preferred, suggesting that for this season at least, there is no obvious gap in the team for Jones to fill. Jones can also play in front of the back four though and considering the lack of tenacity present in a midfield, which desperately missed Darren Fletcher for much of last season, the 19-year old may well find opportunities there.
Evans position is in stark contrast to Vidic’s role at United. Viewed by many as the best centre-back in the world, the Serbian should have at least four more years to offer the club. He recently confirmed he plans to stay at United too.
Indeed, Varane may have earmarked as Vidic’s eventual successor. Aged 18, the 6’3” defender was an important part of Lens’ team last season, making 23 first team appearances in a tough season for the French club. Lens also received offers from both Paris Saint-Germain and a successful bid from Real Madrid, underscoring the high-quality talent United has missed out on.
Even without the French youngster the club’s defensive prospects for the season ahead – indeed the next ten after – are promising. Ferguson is blessed with top quality full-backs in Patrice Evra, Fabio and Rafael da Silva, an inspirational captain in Vidic and the current England U-21 pairing of Smalling and Jones. If the manager is able to get the best out of Ferdinand and Evans, he has two more players of certified quality.
Certainly, the decision to bid for another centre-back raises questions about the roles of some players within Ferguson’s team. Slight in build but good with the ball at his feet, it is viable that Evans’ future could be at full-back. Indeed, Evans could become United’s new utility man, accomplished at playing across the entire back four; a natural successor to O’Shea for comparatively low wages.
Alternatively, Ferguson could Jones as United’s future as a midfield powerhouse, and not at centre-back, particularly if United is unsuccessful in securing a big name to bolster the central midfield this summer.
Yet, it is instructive that Ferguson is unlikely to seek out another defender in the wake of Varane’s snub. After all, Varane’s talent, available at good value, was a temptation and not a solution to a real problem at Old Trafford. In the short-term at least if United’s failure to capture Varane results in an extra €10m being spent on improving the side’s midfield then it may be a blessing in disguise.