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Focus On: Daley Blind’s remarkable journey

We’ve all heard the words about Daley Blind this season. It seems as if the words “Daley Blind is not a centre-back” are scrawled across every Manchester United-related Twitter handle and every tabloid forum in world football. Pundits and fans are not hesitant to point out Blind’s lack of pace and strength at the centre of defence. Perhaps it is because the truth behind Daley Blind’s success isn’t glaring enough to see.

Blind established himself as a defensive midfielder at Ajax before continuing at Manchester United in that position. He impressed many viewers on multiple occasions, even when he was deployed in a makeshift midfield at Upton Park alongside Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj and Angel Di Maria in a diamond. In that match, Blind equalized for United in the 90th minute to cap off his domination of four West Ham midfielders alone. Blind’s best performances for the club came from left-back in the club’s famous March run, as Blind combined with Ashley Young to devastating effect down the left side.

The Manchester United faithful were disappointed to see Daley Blind alongside Phil Jones in the centre of the pitch in a friendly against Club America. Though it was just a friendly, it was United’s first 2015/16 appearance, and to see Daley Blind at centre-back instead of his coveted left-back position was a disappointment. Though United won 1-0, Daley Blind and Phil Jones were tossed all over the place that night, both defenders looking sub-par throughout the half. Even United youngster Paddy McNair, who has had a relatively disastrous season, looked more confident and composed than Blind that night.

It seemed only fitting that Blind moved back to left back or defensive midfield. As was the case many times this season, Louis van Gaal persisted with Blind regardless of his poor performances, but at some point, the lines between bad and good began to blur. In their first three matches of the Premier League season, Manchester United had three clean sheets with Daley Blind at the heart of defence. Blind was particularly effective against Aston Villa, completing almost 96% of his 68 passes and making 10 clearances while dealing with the significant aerial threat of Rudy Gestede.

Football analysts became increasingly enamoured with Blind’s style of play from centre-back, as his passing carved open defences and he became United’s first line of attack. Calm in possession and collected at key moments, Daley Blind’s style worked perfectly alongside Chris Smalling. Blind scored a phenomenal goal against Liverpool at Old Trafford, showing a Paul Scholes-esque ability to pick out the corners from long-range. There is no striker in United’s squad who can finish with that level of composure and technicality.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Smalling and Blind, alongside Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw, constructed the best back four in the Premier League. But United’s fanbase, players and manager’s plans all changed in one unforgettable moment when Luke Shaw was forced off after a horrific leg break in an Eindhoven crunch clash. Marcos Rojo made his official return from a medium-term injury that night, and he and Blind were pulled in all sorts of directions as PSV rallied to score twice. If United had not conceded those goals, they could still be in the Champions League today.

At that moment, it seemed the Daley Blind journey was coming to an end. Blind and Smalling were torn apart by Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez against Arsenal though much of it was to the fault of a terrible midfield game. It was at that point most United fans lost hope on the Blind project. Nobody knew that behind the scenes it was just the beginning for Daley Blind.

Blind spoke in a United interview about working in the gym and finding a new physical level in himself. He also stated his personal belief in intelligence as the key to being a good footballer, not physicality. Moulded in the image of so many greats of today’s game, Blind used his intelligence and hard work not only to become a better athlete, but a more intense, technical footballer. Blind is now part of an elite club of very few defenders who can change a game with a defence-splitting pass from defence.

Through United’s form and injury crisis, Blind struggled as much as the rest, but he led the defence through many challenges and established himself as the leader United needed. The void left by Shaw was somewhat filled by Rojo at his best and was well filled by Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s emergence. Blind himself admitted his best position is as a centre-back, showing how quickly he has adapted to his surroundings at Manchester United. Blind has so quickly personalized a role deeply integral to United’s success.

After the Arsenal game, many called for Blind to be moved to left-back. Some called for Blind to be moved into midfield and some said he only belonged on the bench. Blind worked hard and proved them all wrong, becoming United’s extra man in midfield and making more appearances than any other player for the club this season. Blind used his strengths to build a role for himself and apply his skills to that role. There are very few footballers in the world intelligent enough to do that, but Blind did it without notice or attention. WhoScored’s statistical mathematics say that Daley Blind is Manchester United’s third best player (that played more than five games) in the Premier League this season.

The story of Daley Blind this season needs to be rewritten to include the truth, a fantastic story about a player who continues to defy boundaries and labels for United this season. Fans of football see him as a utility player struggling to make the grade, but under the footballing microscope, we can see that he really is so much more. United fans love the players who leave it all out on the pitch and play for the badge, and Blind has worn his heart on his sleeve for United this season. It is high time for fans and pundits to understand why many are off their seats, waiting to see which expectations Blind can defy next.

The article was researched and written by Aaron Moniz.

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