This time last year Manchester United were starting to put together one of the finest stretches of defensive football ever scene in the English Premier League. But one year later, with a similar defensive cast, they seem exposed, shaky and generally lacking around their own goal.
Much was made in the attacking power that left Old Trafford this summer, but not enough was said about the lack of real talent brought in behind the ball. While there are several quality players who slot into Utd’s back four, they are becoming outnumbered by guys who no longer are able to carry the badge or may never be able.
This may be jumping the gun early in the year, but how much gelling should a back four, picked from ostensibly the same players, need to do when they have all been at the club for at least the last two seasons.
Much has been made about this side’s lack of a truely great No. 1, in this forum and many others. But the problems in front of the Failin’ Foster, Edwin Van Der Old and the poor Pole must be addressed also.
Here is who we are talking about.
Rio Ferdinand: As a young man Rio was pegged to be the mold from which the new generation of defenders were to be cast from. A 1970 Brazilian-style center back who can defend, but also play his way out of trouble and ignite attacks from the most defensive of positions. However, the $40 million man is getting on, getting old before our eyes. Niggling injury after niggling injury have taken their tole from a once elite-level player. As 2009 comes to an end Rio is lacking fitness and no longer seems freekily-ESP-twinned with Nemenja Vidic. If he is ever to be the real Rio again, and not turn into Ledley King.
Nemenja Vidic: Possibly the best center half in the world, any discussion of best value for money signing in the last 10 years should really start with Sir Alex Ferguson’s $6 million for the big Serb. (It should also include the next guy on my list who cost $500,000 less five days later!) The only problem with Vidic is a niggling doubt that he has Ronaldo/Adebayor-fever. There were too many reports of Vidic looking at that greener, other-side-grass over the summer. Does he see his long-term future in England?
Partice Evra: Ashley Cole has looked much more like the player he thinks he is this season, this has put Utd’s Frenchman into the No.2 spot in left-sided fullbacks in the Premier League. He really compliments the left side of Old Trafford in attack, but he will never be a great defensive fullback.
The problem for Man Utd really starts here. While the three above have stuttered, at times, they can be great. I have fit the rest of the defensive squad into two groups — the young and the crap.
Let us start with The Crap:
Wes Brown: When it looked like stalwart-second choice Brown was set to leave Manchester, United bent and offered the former England international an improved contract. After protracted negotiations a deal was struck and Wes stayed. It is unfortunate that those negotiations seem to have sucked all the talent of him and all that’s left is something Brown. Another one with a chain of injuries Wes is about to be on the wrong side 30, too.
Gary Neville: Was a quality, international standard fullback. He is now old and crap.
John O’Shea: O’Shea covers a myriad of positions for Utd. His versatility comes in that he is no good in any number of positions! Don’t get me completely wrong, I think O’Shea is a fine player. A 45 games-a-season guy at Villa, Everton, Bolton etc. But he is not exceptional, he’s a journeyman. Man Utd shouldn’t have journeyman filling in for them 25 times a year, they should be developing new talent or swooping in and buying great players.
Jonny Evans: Looked a great prospect at Sunderland two years ago on loan and in spells in 2008/09 he looked like the heir apparent. But is he great or just a great backup? Whichever, Evans is not going to get a regular start at Old Trafford and has never played 20 games in a season, either at Utd or Sunderland. A young centerhalf needs to become established and play every week to blossom. I can’t see that happening until 2012 at the earliest — considering how much Rio is making!
Rafael/Fabio: Have you ever seen both of them in the same room at the same time? Is there two of them? If there is: Rafael obviously has great talent. He may be a combination of Paul Scholes, Glenn Johnson and Ronaldo. While he does look Ronaldo like bombing down the wing, unfortunately he has Scholes’ (utter lack) of tackling ability and Glenn Johnson’s defensive instincts. He has talent, but is at least a year away from being a Utd regular. Fabio (2 total starts for Utd) is two years away if ever.
The long and the short of it, or the young and the crap of it, is that the Red Devils are at least one world-class player away from a mounting a Premiership or Champions League challenge this year. This may be premature in a young season, but the unity in Utd’s defense that was there last year has gone. The old players are a year further past it, but the guys coming through are simply not there yet, and I just don’t see the leadership of Methuselah Van Der Saar changing anything on his return.