Tag Defence

Tag Defence

Reds miss out on Varane but blessed with options in abundance

June 24, 2011 Tags: , Reads 21 comments

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.

Confidence from the back

April 27, 2011 Tags: , Reads 11 comments

As Manchester United made a huge step towards the 2011 Champions league final after a consummate away performance at Schalke, the Reds’ attacking contingent has drawn huge amounts of praise. Rightly so and picking the man-of-the-match award was arguably the most difficult part of last night’s game with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs pulling out outstanding performances.

So good was United’s attack that at times on Tuesday United’s defensive axis of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van Der Sar could have been forgiven for ‘cracking open a can’ and mingling with United’s travelling support. Yet, although the back four was given a fairly easy ride against Schalke, the unit has been key in the campaign so far.

Some of United’s flowing attacking football has been brilliant of late, with the partnership between Rooney and Hernández flourishing but it is the sturdiness of the side’s defense that has made this possible. Against the surprise German package United broke a Champions League record becoming the first team ever to not concede a goal away from home. Furthermore the Reds have also only conceded three times overall (Valencia, Chelsea and Marseille) one of which was an own goal. It’s a staggering record that supports those who claim United’s first choice defence is the best in the world.

Since Ferdinand’s return from a prolonged calf injury the Reds’ back-four has returned to its miserly best; United concedes fewer goals when Vidic and Ferdinand play together. However, credit is also due to the collective in the Champions League, where Ferdinand and Vidic have only played together five out of 10 games. In this record Chris Smalling has been a major factor, seamlessly filling in for either Vidic or Ferdinand since a £10 million move from Fulham. Despite the clear potential, Smalling is greatly helped by his experienced defensive cohorts, in particular Vidic.

Arguably the best defender in the world, Vidic was very unlucky not to receive this year’s PFA Player of the Year Award. If anything, the captaincy has brought Vidic’s game to another level. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, for example, Vidic coped brilliantly first against Fernando Torres then Didier Drogba. The Serbian’s positional sense, often highlighted as Ferdinand’s strong point, was on show too. Nemanja made nine clearances in an around the area and final third against Chelsea, two of which were in the six yard box, plus a further three headed clearances. Similarly at Old Trafford Vidic made 13 clearances and a further eight with his head. Of these 21 clearances Vidic failed to complete his work on just five occasions.

Where United has excelled, others have failed. Arsenal has struggled for years without a defender who leads his colleagues through tricky patches. United has just that in Ferdinand, whose calmness on the pitch and ability to mop up messy situations makes him the perfect foil for Vidic. Of course, Ferdinand has always fancied himself an attacking player and this is shown through the 32-year-old’s ability to bring the ball out of defence particularly when United a pushing for a goal.

Of course the centre–halves make up only two fifths of United’s back five and in van der Sar United has a ‘keeper with vital experience. Unless the Dutchman makes a dramatic u-turn, as Ferguson did in 2002, United must replace van der Sar with an experienced high-quality ‘keeper. Part of the reason United failed to win the league between 2003 and 2007 was the lack of a ‘world-class’ goalkeeper and with Manuel Neuer keeping Schalke in Tuesday’s game the young German certainly fits United’s bill.

However, the 24-year-old appears headed for Bayern Munich, but after Ferguson missed out on signing van der Sar back in 1999 when Peter Schmeichel retired he will surely not want to miss out again, if the German is his number one target. This argument is for the summer though and in the meantime the manager can revel in van der Sar’s terrific form. The great Dutchman has a maximum of six games to play in a United shirt; supporters should fully enjoy it.

The final piece of United’s almost impenetrable European defence is the full-backs, in whom the Reds have a perfect mix. In games where United is offered greater room for attack, Ferguson frequently deploys Evra with one of the Da Silva brothers. In tighter matches, such as the one at Stamford Bridge, John O’Shea gets the nod. The Irishman is not everybody’s cup of tea but is a good defender, who can contribute in an attacking sense such as the assist for Dimitar Berbatov’s winner against Liverpool this season.

Versatility is also important at United, particularly in defence, as the Reds are not by nature a defensive team. Attacking full-backs were very important at the Veltins Arena on Tuesday, where Fabio and Evra spent the majority of the game in the opposition half. The bulk of the pair’s combined 165 passes occurred in and around the half way line or in Schalke’s part of the field. This contrasts with the game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where O’Shea and Evra passed more in their own half, completing just 75 per cent compared to Fabio and Evra 90. The important stat though – in both matches the Reds kept a clean sheet.

United has one final match before confirming a place in this season’s Wembley showpiece but should the Reds go on to meet either Real Madrid or Barcelona the defence’s fine form must continue Ferguson’s side is to claim a fourth European Cup.