In the three seasons between 2006 and 2009 Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand formed possibly the best central defensive partnership football has ever seen. Ferdinand was no push over in the air, enabling United to play deep when necessary. Meanwhile, the pressing game with a high defensive line was no problem either because Vidić had the pace to recover.
Indeed, prior to the 2008-09 Champions League final, Manchester United was expected to defeat Barcelona with the Reds’ defensive solidity often cited by pundits and fans as United’s big advantage.
As the pair aged each has become more injury prone, with younger players such as Jonny Evans increasingly filling the gaps. Yet, Vidić and Ferdinand have remained first choice despite their noticeable lack of pace; perhaps David de Gea’s initial inexperience and timidity called for calm hands at the back.
However, Evans has firmly established himself as the automatic choice to partner either the Englishman or the Serbian when one of them is absent. The Northern Irishman does not possess Phil Jones’ natural talent, nor does he have Chris Smalling’s physical attributes, but he has more top flight games under his belt and offer keen tactical awareness.
Last season Evans was typically deployed as the left-sided central defender. However, when Jones or Smalling was deployed at right-back, the academy graduate shifted right as well. Since deployment at centre-back is fundamentally different from doing so as a full back and it makes perfect sense to have Evans, who is positionally excellent, and quick enough to mop things up if necessary.
There were other interesting combinations. Smalling was preferred on the left when he partnered Vidić. Despite his height, the former Fulham player is more comparable to Ferdinand than Vidić in style. Crucially, the Englishman offers mobility over the Serbian – for some reason Sir Alex Ferguson always preferred his left sided central defender– be it Evans or Smalling – to be mobile.
Perhaps a clue lies in Ferguson’s assessment of his left-back, Patrice Evra. The Frenchman enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2012-13, but he has never been a particularly good defender. Poor positionally, Evra has always relied on his pace and the centre-back partnering him on the left side to counter the opposition.
Given Evra’s weaknesses it made perfect sense to have the quicker of the central duo on the left and Ferguson’s preference for Evans and Smalling in that position is justified.
Data from the 2012-13 season suggest that central defenders tend to put in more tackles, commit and suffer more fouls and get involved in more headed duels when playing with Evra on the left. The implication is that United’s opposition has often targeted Evra as the defensive weakness in United’s back-four.
Other data supports this theory. Evra’s impressive rate of winning headers last season has often been brought up. Indeed, Evra’s 62 per cent success rate dwarfs Leighton Baines’ 39 per cent and Ashley Cole at 53 percent. However, Evra dealt with 3.21 headed duels per game when Baines dealt with 0.74 and Cole with 1.29. Despite being shorter than the former Monaco player, and worse in the air, Rafael, on the right, got involved in 2.14 aerial duels per game.
Full-backs’ primary offensive role is to create chances. In that aspect, Evra compares very favourably to Fabio Coentrão and Baines – David Moyes’ two defensive targets this summer. But it is the defensive statistics that confirm why the new United manager went looking for a new left-back.
Evra’s low proportion of interceptions in defensive actions, and the fact that the Frenchman committed more fouls per game suggest that his positioning is poor compared to Coentrão and Baines. Coincidentally, the figure has shrunk to 17.9 per cent this season. But the data from last season suggests that the Everton left-back would have provided greater security at the back, while offering offensive qualities at least as equal to Evra’s.
Additionally, there are tactical implications. Moyes’ side has faced significant challenges this season and most of them are caused by the team sitting too deep – Vidic and Ferdiand’s pace necessitating the move. With Evans, Smalling and Phil Jones coming back into action, the Scot can consider pushing his team up once again.
Fellaini’s acquisition adds a little bite in central midfield and pressing as a defensive measure has now become a viable option. However, it is difficult to foresee a manager with Moyes’ reactive tendencies setting up a pressing game with a positionally poor left back who is clearly being targeted by the opposition.
There are alternatives though: a midfield diamond might solve many of Moyes’ defensive problems, and release attacking options. Fitting in Shinji Kagawa, a player who can offer the creative spark United is desperately seeking, is easy. Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie would be free to move into wide areas in search of space, which should ameliorate the lack of width prevalent in the diamond.
With Fellaini’s arrival United now has the number and variety needed for a midfield heavy plan. The deep-lying midfielder can cover advancing full-backs without worrying about losing the midfield battle. And with United’s options on the flanks limited, using Fellaini’s brawn and Kagawa’s brain appears a more productive approach.
The plan has weaknesses; attacks down the flanks – especially quick counterattacks – are extremely dangerous, but United already faces that challenge with teams targeting the left flank. Meanwhile, United’s full-backs, starting in the Swansea game, tended to concede the ground, come inside and defend the box anyway.
Putting theory to work is difficult, nor is there any guarantee that it will work. Sir Alex had experimented with the formation last season so Moyes has a base from which he can work. The transfer window has closed and the winter market is notoriously bare – the new manager now has make do with what he has. Tactical evolution may be the answer.