Rojo: United’s most satisfying surprise
When the summer transfer window closed few would have anticipated that former Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo would establish himself as the best signing of Manchester United’s season.
Acquired on a five-year deal for £16 million, the Argentine became the club’s third recruit of the off-season, following an impressive domestic season in Portugal in which Sporting finished runners up, with the second best defensive record in the division. Rojo also featured in six of his nation’s seven games at the World Cup in Brazil, including the final, during which Argentina suffered a devastating extra-time defeat at the hands of champions Germany. It was an impressive season for a relatively inexperienced defender – both at club and international level – and for the Old Trafford faithful, a sign of things to come.
The 24-year-old had attracted strong interest from Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton, even prior to his World Cup involvement, with a move to the Premier League seeming inevitable. Clearly Ronald Koeman recognised the Argentine’s quality; a compliment in itself. As the season progresses it is becoming increasingly difficult to find fault with the Saints’ recruitment standards. The south coast outfit have enjoyed an inspirational league campaign, and, having conceded just 17 goals in 24 league games, boast the best defensive record in the English top flight. Rojo was touted as an ideal addition at St Mary’s, but Louis van Gaal swooped in, undetected, to sign his man.
Recognised predominately as a central defender, but also capable of chipping in at left-back, Rojo’s versatility was undoubtedly a major factor behind the United head coach’s interest. Despite featuring most regularly as centre-back for Sporting Lisbon, a starring role on the left side of defence during the summer World Cup led many to believe Van Gaal had captured another full-back. In hindsight, this was clearly not the case. The Dutchman holds a firm admiration for the former Spartak Moscow defender, undoubtedly catalyzed by his displays in South America.
“He has ability, physical strength and a willingness to learn… that means he has a very bright future ahead of him,” Van Gaal claimed upon Rojo’s arrival. “He had a very strong World Cup and has been playing in Europe for a couple of years now.”
Rojo’s was certainly the most contentious arrival of those at Old Trafford during the summer window. The departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand exposed a significant lack of depth in the back four, and despite success in South America, 24-year-old Rojo was considered a capable replacement for the veteran pair by very few. Question marks were also raised regarding the manner of Rojo’s transfer – he forced his way out of Sporting, giving the Primeira Liga outfit little option but to demand as high a fee as possible. This was viewed as a signal of the player’s negative temperament and lack of integrity by some – and evidence of burning ambition by others. Regardless, it is clear that Rojo recognised the magnitude of such an opportunity.
At just 24 years of age, Rojo has been a regular feature of Louis van Gaal’s ever-evolving defence – commanding a back-line of three or four, depending on the Dutchman’s mood. Of all the defenders on the Old Trafford books, it is now fair to argue that the Argentine – a World Cup finalist and regular Champions League participant – is the most experienced. Jonny Evans may be three years Rojo’s senior, but the Northern Irishman has never quite been able to cut it at the highest level. Rojo is now Van Gaal’s most dependable defender – a sentiment reinforced by the confidence of his recent performances.
Despite dislocating his shoulder in November and suffering a thigh strain in December, the Argentine youngster has experienced few difficulties settling into life at Old Trafford. Unexpectedly, Rojo’s committed displays have only served to enhance his reputation with the club’s fans. Despite the turbulence season, Rojo has shown excellent form throughout.
Assured, composed and ruthless: Rojo’s physical presence was evident after just a few games for the club. He has the mentality and technical ability needed to star for the three-time European champions. Comfortable on the ball and un-phased by the demands of possession-based football, the Argentine has also looked a natural fit within Van Gaal’s philosophy. He has also impressed in a defensive sense, averaging 2.77 tackles, 3.15 interceptions and 2.62 successful aerial duels per game this season. Ultimately, Rojo has ensured United remains tight at the back. There are also impressive early signs of leadership – the support he provided academy graduate Paddy McNair, particularly on the Irishman’s debut, has impressed.
Rojo was also United’s best defender in the draw against West Ham at Upton Park; a match drawn courtesy of Daley Blind’s last minute equaliser. The visitors looked at sea for large spells, with Rojo proving the difference between defensive conformity and an easy route to goal. Against the team that has scored more headed goals than any this season, the Argentine was up to the physical competition. It took a fabulous strike from Cheikhou Kouyate to break the deadlock, while Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia rarely threatened David de Gea.
Of course, there have been moments of hot-headedness, in which Rojo’s decision-making could have proved costly. One impulsive first-half foul on the halfway line sticks in the memory. Yet, Rojo is still young, with a tendency to make rash decisions. It shouldn’t be long before he erases these from his game. After all, his predecessors didn’t start perfectly either.
It is perhaps too early in Rojo’s career to make comparisons with Vidic, but the younger man looks capable of emulating the Serbian’s success at Old Trafford. Rojo displays real physical presence and an air of calmness when in possession, supplemented by desire to achieve success in a red shirt. Just seven months into his time with United, Rojo’s celebrations alone express a level of infatuation with the club.
Unlike many of the club’s summer arrivals, Rojo has made the transition to English football well. After an impressive start, Angel Di Maria suffered an injury setback prior to Christmas; the winger’s form hasn’t been the same since. Radamel Falcao has failed to hit the ground running following a series of underwhelming displays, and with his weekly wage burning a significant hole in the club’s coffers, the Colombian’s future at United looks increasingly uncertain. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw has hardly lived up to the £30 million fee, although the teenager boasts the advantage of having copious amounts of time on his side.
Meanwhile, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera remain the Argentine’s only real competition for the coveted ‘Signing of the Season’ accolade. Ultimately the duo has fallen victim to a lack of playing time; a result of Van Gaal’s vigorous squad rotation.
Based on a series of impressive performances and natural deduction, it is fair to conclude that Rojo has been the club’s most impressive arrival under the Dutchman’s regime; a significant achievement for a player who, unlike most last summer, practically entered the club through the back door.