Over the years, Manchester United has built success on the back of two solid central defenders. From Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, the Sir Alex Ferguson era was defined by partnerships of defenders, dovetailing gracefully to form a prolific partnership. With this in mind, United’s current central defensive combination is a real conundrum that the Old Trafford faithful have yet to experience.
United’s five central defenders are all solid players, but no two can be looked at and chosen as a clear partnership in the side. Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones have experienced recent revivals, but still don’t look world class, while Chris Smalling has made the opposite downturn from United captain contender to fighting for his place in the squad. Eric Bailly has proved to be an astute buy, and Daley Blind is the clear option in matches where United controls possession of the ball, such is the ability he offers moving forward.
Regardless of the wealth of options, though, United still fundamentally struggles to find the best combination. This frustration is reflected in United’s fan base, with people calling for new defenders to be added when there are no hints as to who should be leaving. In addition, Axel Tuanzebe is still in the U23’s when he could be a first-team option, and United fans are correct about needing a new defender in the side. This means that one or two of the five aforementioned defenders should be packing their bags and moving on. But which ones?
Manchester United fans have taken to Eric Bailly because he is an exemplar of stability in a side with none of the sort. Bailly’s tough-tackling, aggressive style sees him lunge into challenges, but he also seems to be a great decision maker, analyzing space and using his incredible pace to cover the gaps behind the defence. Distributing the ball, he seems to be far more effective than expected, averaging 46 passes with a 90% accuracy rate, and at 22, this is an attribute at which he can improve exponentially. As the future of the United defence and the best central defender at the club at present, Bailly needs to start for United. The question is more in terms of finding the right partner for him, a proper backup who can step into his role and the player who doesn’t fit in.
Whether or not he is in the centre of the defence or on the left side, Blind remains United’s greatest defensive asset, in my opinion. First of all, Blind is arguably the most intelligent player at the club, utilizing his efficient movement to compensate for his lack of pace, and showing great spatial awareness to help United defend with a high line. Because of this, not only does he offer more moving forward with his midfield passing range, he also helps United compress the pitch for the opposition, especially against smaller sides.
Adding numbers to midfield from defence, Blind is the most progressive option at United by a distance. Playing most of his matches in central defence, Blind remarkably completes more than a key pass every match, comparing with some of the best creative midfielders in world football. Blind is also the closest player to Michael Carrick at United- in the dawn of Jose Mourinho’s tenure, United was winning matches with Blind at central defence, despite the fact Carrick was not playing matches. He is also a threat from set-pieces, famously creating three goals in United’s 4-1 win over Leicester City from the corner flag.
Perhaps the most enigmatic player of the five, Chris Smalling combines phenomenal performances and wearing the armband with capitulating displays of disorganization. Last season, at the heart of United’s defence, Smalling was spectacular, dominating in the air and on the ground and making himself impenetrable. That being said, he has arguably been United’s worst player this season, with his horror-show against Chelsea the epitome of his tendency to be awful on occasion. Physically, he has the highest stature of all the defenders at the club, which explains why he was very effective when paired alongside Daley Blind for much of last season.
While it would be unfair to berate Smalling for being inconsistent considering the likes of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, Smalling compares unfavourably with every other defender at the club when it comes to distributing the ball, as he seems to negate transitions from the back to the front of the pitch for United. The best defenders in the world in 2016 can all pass the ball as well as a defensive midfielder could a decade ago, which does not bode well for Smalling. Even when Jones and Rojo play poorly, they are better on the ball, whereas a poor Smalling nullifies every phase of United’s play.
At the beginning of the season, Jones was written off by United fans, exhausted by his injuries and ready to have a solid backup on a consistent basis. However, Jones has once again emerged as a solid option, proving he can be more than a solid central defender for United. That being said, everyone knows about his fitness issues, as his failure to be fit when Chris Smalling was out of form, despite not playing any football beforehand, cost United dearly. This problem seems to be the only problem with Jones, who is currently playing very good football.
Jones always has an error in him, but he hasn’t made it yet, and in my opinion, consistent fitness makes him a very similar defender to Eric Bailly. At another club, Jones and Bailly would be a wonderful experiment to conduct, but I don’t think it would function properly at United because the current progressive football at United requires a better defender on the ball. When fit, though, Jones has been instrumental at the heart of defence- in his five Premier League appearances, Jones averages 10.5 clearances every game, while maintaining a 91% passing accuracy.
Finally, the most maligned of United players at left-back has once again proven he is a solid central defender, showing passion, aggression, composure and leadership at clear moments. While he is incredibly rash and often violent in the tackle, he makes up for it with very good distribution, the only defender at United that one would compare with Daley Blind in this category. Rojo even completes more passes forward than Blind per 90 minutes.
Rojo showed the potential to be a world-class central defender, but personal issues, combined with Louis van Gaal’s awful decision to convert Rojo into a left-back, has stagnated his career. Now is the chance for him to cement his place in the squad, as a passionate substitute, and he is making progress, but only the utmost discipline and composure will allow Rojo to reverse the criticism that came his way during his time at left-back.
What is the pecking order?
As stated before, Eric Bailly is the clear first choice in central defence. Daley Blind earns the edge as his partner, for now, but ideally he shouldn’t be a starter for Manchester United in central defence (especially because he could be used in other positions). Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo represent perfect backups to these two as well, which makes me believe Chris Smalling is the odd-one-out in this quintet. That being said, Smalling has emerged as a leader at United, which means some big decisions need to be made to make room for an elite central defender. Manchester United has traditionally been built on solid defensive partnerships, as have Jose Mourinho’s men, but if United is to play their best football they need to capitalise on squad options.