Fábio da Silva’s impending departure on loan to an as yet unnamed destination is likely to remove the last challenge, if there ever genuinely was, to Patrice Evra’s supremacy in the Manchester United left-back slot. This will necessitate that Sir Alex Ferguson dips into the transfer market this summer, both for the good of his squad and, indeed, the French defender.
In confirming that Fábio will leave the club on loan next season Ferguson has once again placed faith in one of his most enduring lieutenants. After all, Evra has averaged almost 48 games a season over the past five years, and is now coming towards the end of his seventh season with the club, with 288 appearances in all competitions.
Yet, the Frenchman could benefit greatly from increased competition at Old Trafford. Certainly, only Evra’s most staunch supporters will deny a decline in the left-back’s form post 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Indeed, data on Evra’s performances supports the proposition that the left-back suffered a slump in form during the 2010/11 campaign. The Frenchman made fewer passes, touched the ball less often, completed fewer crosses, shots of goal diminished, and he created a quarter of the goals of the previous campaign. Evra also covered less ground in 2010/11, dribbled less frequently and spent less time in attacking areas than in the previous season.
Away from the data, many United fans believe Evra is, or was in 2010/11, far from the buccaneering left-back who was widely accredited with being the finest in his position in the world for two years previously.
Yet, there have also been encouraging signs in recent months of an improvement in the Frenchman’s form – most prominently since the drama of the ‘Luis Suarez’ affair died down in the early new year. Many of those data points have returned to pre-World Cup levels, suggesting that the mental and physical fatigue brought about by five years of incessant football had taken their toll on the defender, and a long rest last summer helped.
But not all of Evra’s performance data is where it once was – the Frenchman is spending less time in the final third, making fewer attacking passes, the number of shots have diminished, and he is putting in less crosses than two years ago.
It is also common sense that the Senegalese-born defender is unlikely to improve in the coming seasons. After all, with Evra so heavily used in the past, and turning 31 in May, Ferguson will soon begin the process of winding down his reliance on the Frenchman. Burn out, with Evra likely to travel to Euro 2012 with the French squad this summer, is quite possible if Ferguson uses Evra for more than 40 games once again next season.
Many supporters, and most likely Sir Alex too, had hoped that Fábio would provide both the challenge to Evra’s hegemony – and the boost in performance that competition often brings – together with a well-earned respite for the senior man. It hasn’t come to pass, partly because of Evra’s ongoing endurance, and also thanks to the younger man’s frequent injuries.
The young Brazilian has played just 53 games – 36 starts – for United since making his début over three years ago. And while the Fábio claimed United’s right-back berth in time to start last season’s Champions League final, he has made no progress this season, starting just twice in the Premier League.
This regression has prompted a club rethink, with the youngster no longer seen as Evra’s heir-apparent, but instead requiring the match hardening only regular football will bring.
“I hope that Fabio will develop the same way as his twin [Rafael] and, to help him, he will go out on loan next season to give him concentrated first-team experience,” Sir Alex wrote in Sunday’s programme notes.
“I have already talked to him and he understands the value of playing regularly at a higher level than we can give him at the moment.”
By contrast twin brother Rafael – once considered the lesser of the siblings – has now appeared in 88 matches for the club, having claimed the right-back slot for his own during the run-in. While United is seemingly likely to bring in Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace to provide Rafael with competition, the Brazilian will surely start next season as Sir Alex’ first choice at right-back.
Meanwhile, United is likely to welcome suitors for Fábio with open-arms, although the player has already spoken of a move to Benfica this summer. Ferguson though is more likely to prompt the young Brazilian to join a Premier League club, where United’s coaches can more easily monitor the 21-year-old’s progress. Moreover, stories of Fábio becoming a make-weight in a potential deal for Benfica’s Argentinian midfielder Nicolas Gaitan are almost certainly wide of the mark.
“I am excited about the opportunity to play for Benfica, being a famous and great team,” Fábio reportedly told Portuguese paper O Jogo.
“I feel very honored by the interest of Benfica, but my transfer now depends on Manchester United completing negotiations.”
Fabio’s departure leaves Evra as United’s only left-back, with youngster Ezikiel Fryers likely to leave in the summer when he is out of contract. But Ferguson is also unlikely to be handed millions for a new left-back, with spending on a new midfielder and, possibly, a striker a priority. This will leave Evra to play almost every fixture next season – save for injury – unchallenged.
Speculation is already rife that United will bring in a new man though, with club scouts having been seen watching the excellent Spanish youngster Jordi Alba of Valencia, Costa Rican defender Bryan Oviedo, Granada’s Brazilian Guilherme Siqueira, Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre, and Lyon left-back Aly Cissokho among others in recent months.
There will undoubtedly be another dozen names thrown into the hat before the summer ends. Indeed, some coveting Evra’s place have taken to openly courting the club.
“Aly wants to play in the Premier League because he feels it suits his game,” Cissokho’s agent Ali Barat said earlier this month. “He has already turned down interest from AC Milan and Juventus because he wants to move to the Premier League and his preferred destination would be Manchester United.”
Honduran Izaguirre went so far as to claim “it’s 100% true that Manchester United were following me and were interested in me. It was Alex Ferguson directly who made contact with the Celtic directors. If I have the chance I welcome the move with open arms.”
Fábio’s departure does not mean the end of the youngster’s United career, even if a new man comes in. It is more than likely that United will go shopping a the bottom-end of the market this summer. Whether that provides Evra with any genuine competition is open to question.
Evra’s decline and renaissance?[table id=16 /]