Center-back concerns could derail Manchester United’s title bid

smalling jones

The center-back position at Manchester United has never been the same following the decline of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. While Sir Alex seemingly bolstered the central defensive ranks by purchasing young players like Phil Jones and Chris Smalling and having Jonny Evans come up through the academy, none of these have yet to fully grow into the role.

Last season these three were joined by Marcos Rojo, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett in various matches due to a cycle of injuries throughout the campaign. The question at the moment is what will the central defensive pairing be to start the season (not to mention, how many will stay healthy).

Recent reports have stated that Sergio Ramos has been named Real Madrid captain and is off the table, leaving United supporters feeling played again as yet another player postures for a move to get what he wants from his current team. Still, this could be seen as somewhat encouraging since it most likely keeps David De Gea at Manchester United for another season.

What this means for the United squad now is that they have currently made only one change at the back with the much needed addition of Matteo Darmian at right-back. We are now left with the same central defensive pairing(s) as last season. Is this enough to win?

With a return to the Champions League, Manchester United is, once again, vying for trophies on all fronts. Bringing through the likes of McNair and Blackett last season is absolutely crucial to proceeding in these tournaments. These two will likely be used in the early rounds of competitions like the Capital One Cup and even the FA Cup, giving much needed breaks for regulars like Jones, Smalling and Rojo.

You will notice that I left out Evans. The Northern Irish defender made just 13 appearances all season, only two more than Blackett and three fewer than McNair. It is possible that he will be on his way out, but even if he’s not, it doesn’t look like he is fitting into van Gaal’s plans.

Data Analysis

Out of all of their defenders Smalling was the best fantasy defender for United in the official game, but 37th overall. This is not very good for any team, but especially terrible for a big team like Manchester United.

Smalling is also the defender who played the most minutes and matches with 21 starts and four sub appearances for a total of 1880 minutes. Jones was just behind him with 22 starts and 1879 minutes, while Rojo started 20 times with two substitutions and 1765 minutes.

What did this playing time get the United defenders? Remarkably enough they did not have a single error that lead to a goal, although we all know that this is because of David De Gea. Evans and Rojo each had four defensive errors with Smalling adding two more and Jones having zero; although that crawling header against Arsenal probably prevented what would have been a defensive error leading to a goal.

Using Squawka.com and their comparison matrix we can make some comparisons between the defenders. As a point of reference I chose John Terry who not only started all 38 matches of the season, but he also picked up 17 clean sheets and had the second highest points amongst defenders in fantasy Premier League (behind teammate Branislav Ivanovic).

For the stats, I chose to go with an average per game considering that Terry played in 38 matches while Evans was on the low end with just 14 games. There is a slight shift if the metrics are changed to per 90 minutes, but I do believe that match time contributes to just how useful the player has been.

John TerryPhil JonesChris SmallingMarcos RojoJonny Evans
Interceptions0.843.182.322.551.79
Clearances5.717.956.526.455.29
Blocks0.790.270.640.320.36
Tackles Won0.971.860.921.641.57
Tackles Lost0.531.771.161.861.43
Fouls Committed0.341.180.921.090.50
Successful Passes37.0844.5541.5250.5550

There are a lot of numbers in there, but to break it down, Manchester United defenders, on the whole, made more interceptions, clearances, tackles, passes, and committed more fouls while also losing more tackles. While much of this data looks good overall it is indicative of something else entirely, namely the lack of cover in front of their defense combined with an inconsistent defensive line.

Without diving into too much more data, suffice it to say that Manchester United’s lack of cohesion in defense was the cause for the majority of their problems throughout the season. In looking at Chelsea’s defense, they had a solid back line that rarely changed as well as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league just in front of them in Nemanja Matic. Combine that with Mourinho’s often defensive tactics and this was a team that simply didn’t give away goals.

That midfield of Chelsea’s was the difference maker for a team that often lacked mobility at the back. With the new crop of United midfielders being brought in, this current lineup of United defenders are going to be given the chance to blossom and grow.

Even with all of the difficulties last season, United still managed to allow the fourth fewest goals in the league last season (37). This was achieved with six central defenders that have an average age of 23.5, including regular starters of Jones and Smalling at 23 and 25 respectively. Having so many young defenders provides room for growth and improvement along with a solid foundation for the future.

The Future

With the transfer of Sergio Ramos in doubt and Mats Hummels having already committed himself to Borussia Dortmund, there is only one other defender in the rumor mill at the moment. Nicolas Otamendi is reported to be pushing for a move to Old Trafford from Valencia, but the high price tag may deter United from digging too deep.

There is a very good reason for this: United have quality defenders in the team already. I know that is a bold statement, and one that the majority of supporters would call me out on, but I’m going to stick by it. I believe that this group of United defenders can win the title and push far into the Champions League competition. If they can add a striker I dare say they have a very good chance at the Premier League and Champions League double.

Last season was not a disaster, despite the numerous changes in formations, squad rotations, and injuries. It was a season for these players to learn van Gaal’s methods and adjust to them. These defenders are still young players that have potential to fill and if you add Luke Shaw and Darmian, then there are two more young, talented players to mix in.

With this summer’s tour being a shortened one, the focus will be on getting this team to work together towards van Gaal’s ideal setup. I do believe that the most important keys in the team’s success this season are in midfield.

So much of Manchester United’s issues last season came from their midfield. The defense has already been trained to play the ball out from the back and having the cushion of two very good defensive midfielders in front of them means they should have more confidence.

In watching the pairing of Jones and Smalling towards the end of the season you could see them starting to grow in confidence, particularly Chris Smalling. If he can continue to pick up games this season and build his confidence he has the chance to become a great defender who can lead from the back, something desperately needed. The same can be said of Jones, although his age and demeanor have often seen him take a lesser role in the team.

There is also Rojo who has now had time to see what it is like to play in the Premier League. If he is joined by Argentinian teammate Nicolas Otamendi, there is the chance for another solid central defense pairing, possibly more suited to the continental style of the Champions League. While Rojo will most likely start the season being rested there is a very good chance that he will quickly become a regular starter alongside Smalling.

Evans once had a lot of potential, but has largely become a laughing stock for United supporters. It is unfortunate, but something clearly has not clicked for him under van Gaal and he is likely to sit on the bench for much of the season if he isn’t shipped out.

The futures of Blackett and McNair are still bright with both of them being included in United’s US Tour squad. For this season they will presumably pick up matches occasionally if needed (filling in for injuries or Cup matches), but there is a lot of promise with both of them. The fact that they can also be used as fullbacks gives them a versatility to provide cover through the season.

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4 Comments

  1. jtm371 July 16, 2015
  2. Todd July 16, 2015
    • jtm371 July 16, 2015
      • Todd July 16, 2015

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