Insights: Manchester United needs to shop for the right defenders

Old Trafford

Manchester United forums, tabloids and articles have been stocked with Jose Mourinho’s famous words about finding three of his four targets. The vast majority of United supporters believe the fourth is a central midfielder named Paul Pogba, but that doesn’t mean United’s business ends there. Mourinho described a ‘supplementary’ market for things he can improve but doesn’t need, and based on United’s current options it would be strange to suggest he meant anything but the defence.

Since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic passed their primes, there have been many words to attempt to describe Manchester United’s defence. Former manager Louis van Gaal did good work with the back four at Old Trafford, and Jose Mourinho recently added the undoubtedly talented Eric Bailly to the ranks. United’s defence is good enough- a relatively simple statement to represent the pure simplicity of it- United’s defence is good enough. But United has never settled with good enough before and settling with good enough last year created the problems that ended van Gaal’s tenure.

United’s attack was good enough at the end of last season, and it was addressed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. United’s midfield was good enough, and people are expecting Paul Pogba to come in, effectively blowing the roof off the football world. But United’s defence was only addressed with Bailly, who most consider being one for the future. Don’t get me wrong, Bailly looks the part- but it is clear to anyone looking at United’s squad that Mourinho’s supplementary piece should be a defender, and if it wasn’t before, it should be now.

United’s other transfers so far also contribute to the discussion on defensive purchases- Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and hypothetically, Pogba, are all the exact players for United’s system. Finding players not only for quality but for tactical fitting is unbelievably important, especially when talking about defensive units. It is for this reason that, if Mourinho is to dip into the market for a supplementary defender, he needs to find the right one. Nobody knows who that defender will be when the day comes, and Mourinho should be trusted regardless of who it is, but there is already a template for a defensive setup at United- a promising one that should be adhered to if Mourinho wants a world class rotational unit at United.

United’s central defensive options are divided into two clear groups. Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo (category 1) are ball-playing, left-footed central defenders, and Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly (category 2) are their basic, right footed, aerially dominant counterparts. The combinations on the pitch, as utilised by van Gaal and likely to be utilised by Mourinho, are simple- either one of each category or both defenders from category 2. However, many would question the suitability of a system without ball-playing at the highest level. Rojo cannot be trusted at the highest level (yet), and Blind is not ideal to have in a defensive line against a side with two strikers.

Mourinho clearly likes Bailly, and Smalling is good enough to be United’s third captain, meaning that type of defender is nailed down in United’s defence. There are more questions of Blind and even more of Rojo, and this is often seen as the area that can be most improved. Based on a criterial system of quality and tactical options, United would benefit from a ball-playing defender. Most would say United could simply go for any ball-playing defender, which could work, but here’s why United needs to find an option that slots straight in.

Let’s create a hypothetical situation in which United went out and bought Kostas Manolas to pair Smalling in defence. Manolas slots into the team as a right footed, ball-playing central defender, and he’s having a world class season alongside Smalling. All of a sudden, Manolas gets injured or loses form. United has no replacement without changing the entire system. Manolas, then, either has to play every single match or change the defensive setup. Changing that one defender doesn’t only affect the defender, either. It’ll affect how the fullbacks plan to cover and move up the pitch. It’ll completely change where the defensive midfielders drop to pick up the ball. If the defender is right footed, perhaps Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield would pick up the ball on the left side of the central defender.

In addition, the advantage of having one defensive system with multiple players to play the roles is the ability to play any combination of the defenders. If United signed Aymeric Laporte (who is the perfect target), for example, any combination would work. Laporte could pair Smalling or Bailly, either of those two could pair Blind or Rojo, and, situationally, Smalling could pair Bailly. These players, all aged 22-26, would develop as a world class quintuplet as opposed to developing as individuals, similar to the way Juventus has built their rock of a defence.

To this day, treble-winning Barcelona can’t find a solution to the Javier Mascherano conundrum in defence. Their defence and midfield always look different without the Argentinean while Sergio Busquets and Alex Song failed to emulate him in his absence. Manchester City, meanwhile, has gone out and purchased Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi in recent years. Last season the Citizens had four completely different central defenders, and opposition forwards were able to expose the individual weaknesses of each respective defender. Louis van Gaal has built a template for world class defending, and it is there for Mourinho to carry through.

Sir Alex Ferguson knew what he wanted when he went into the market and made Rio Ferdinand the most expensive defender to this day. Because he knew exactly what he wanted, his system worked and Ferdinand excelled. For clarification, footedness wasn’t the key in Ferguson’s system the way van Gaal made it in his version. I bring Ferdinand into the discussion for a reason, though. To this date, he’s the only Premier League defender to justify that kind of fee.

Manchester City has twice spent on high-priced, high-quality defenders recently who haven’t panned out, proving again that, when there is a plan, the transfers are exponentially more successful. If Mourinho is going to go out and spend £40 million on a defender, he better be able to take it to the football bank that the defender fits into United’s current system, because only then will the bank offer him a return on his investment. United’s defence has come a long way, and to burn it with a pile of cash now would be asinine at best. It is high time United started making sensible moves in the transfer market, and with a great start to market proceedings, Old Trafford needs to put every brain cell forward to make a dent in this year’s Premier League.

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