Opinion: The Manchester United defence in a larger context

David De Gea

For a brief second in the North East against Newcastle United on Wednesday evening, we were reminded why Jonny Evans was once considered a future world-class defender. A rare Newcastle attack resulted in Evans putting in a majestic slide tackle to halt the Newcastle advance. It was a tackle that would have made Rio Ferdinand proud. Several years ago, Evans was once one of our best center backs, in the classic mold of defenders of years gone by. He routinely made last-ditch tackles and rarely made mistakes. The Jonny Evans of United’s Barclays Premier League winning sides would be a welcome addition to a defence that has been much maligned this season despite not allowing as many goals as might be expected, largely thanks to the heroics of David De Gea.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the shambolic defending at times has been inconsistency at the back. Louis van Gaal has tried several combinations at the back while tinkering with the formation. Through the first part of the season, this could be chalked up to injury. Recently, however, Van Gaal has been able to select defenders from a much larger poll. Despite this, we have still seen inconsistent team selection.

At left back, Luke Shaw can’t seem to discover how to stay healthy and fit. Shaw has shown industry when getting forward. The young Englishman is pacy and can deliver consistent service when fit. When Shaw has gotten a run of games, he has shown flashes of why he is such an expensive teenage footballer. Here’s hoping Shaw can discover a consistent run form and fitness.

Thus Marcos Rojo, our best signing in the opinion of many, has cameoed at left back. Rojo did play left back for Argentina in the FIFA World Cup last summer, but so far this season he has starred in the centre of the defence.

Rojo’s strength and ability to bully defenders off the ball has been sorely missing in the heart of United lately. Rojo also has shown a great ability to win aerial battles and seems to relish the scrappiness of English football, particularly against lower league opposition in the FA Cup. The Argentinian has shown the capability to adapt to the opposition. Against lower league opposition which plays a more physical style, Rojo is willing to do the dirty defending. At the same time, Rojo can play a classier, Ferdinand-esque style of defending against teams that hope to play attractive football.

Recent sequences of play, however, reveal the positives of Rojo at left back. Rojo seems more willing than even Shaw to get forward. He unleashed a shot at Newcastle on Wednesday night that wasn’t that far off from sneaking in the top corner. Rojo continuously looks to overlap, though the communication between the winger (which seems to be permanently Ashley Young at this point) and the Argentinian does need improvement. It is refreshing, however, to see a full back that both defends and gets forward, taking care of both responsibilities.

At right full back, Rafael da Silva had been injured before featuring for the U21’s recently. Supporters, including myself, have developed an intense affinity for the Brazilian. We have been willing to forgive mistakes like the red card against Bayern Munich in the 2010 Champions League quarterfinal because Rafael is a true Red. His passion is unmistakable; take, for example, his skirmish with Carlos Tevez.

Despite his passion, Rafael’s impetuousness and seemingly lack of ability to grow into a mature player may result in him leaving Old Trafford this summer. A player who some, myself included, saw as a future United captain seems to be facing an inglorious end to his life in Manchester.

Thus the right back position has been ably filled by Antonio Valencia this season. Valencia is reliable enough; he puts in a good shift night and night out. The dynamism, however, is missing. Valencia, once handed the number seven shirt, has not often shown the pace and ability to whip crosses in since his heartbreaking injury. His crosses seem magnetically attracted to the defender’s body. Valencia’s inability to consistently put crosses into the box has resulted in a worryingly low amount of service for Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, and Wayne Rooney.

Lately, however, Valencia’s attacking form seems to have slowly improved. The Ecuadorian looks more confident going forward. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come. If Valencia once again learns how not to play with fear, the right side of the United attack will become much more threatening.

Thus we reach the centre of the defence. The aforementioned Rojo has performed superbly at centre back, but circumstances have forced the Argentinean to left back. The remaining options, of course, are Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair, and Tyler Blackett. Blackett and McNair are young and have recently been given new contracts.

Blackett has not been given a dearth of first team opportunities since the fall, though this is more due to the return of injured players. The young Englishman has, however, shown streaks of immaturity. He was sent off against Leicester City back in September and recently received a red card in an U21 match, but the ability is there, and he looks set to develop into a classy defender in the Ferdinand mold. Paddy McNair has been given more first team opportunities. The Northern Irishman was recently mentioned by Van Gaal as being the possible United right back for the next ten years. McNair, probably due to his youth, has shown flashes of stability but has largely performed inconsistently.

We are left with Jones, Smalling, and Evans. Smalling has enjoyed a sort of renaissance lately, turning in some steady displays while scoring twice against Burnley. The former Fulham man, however, still possesses an inconsistent streak. It seems to be one step forward, two steps back for Smalling.

Jones, who Ferguson once called a potential United all-time great, has endured somewhat of the same fate as Smalling. Jones always puts in a shift, hustling for every loose ball. The Englishman just cannot seem to stay fit. He often goes into challenges as hard as he can regardless of the possibility of winning the ball. Fans appreciate the toughness, but it often results in Jones picking up a knock and missing significant amounts of times. He is a long way off from the reputation he enjoyed when he first arrived at the club.

Louis van Gaal will no doubt be looking at bringing in a centre back this summer. The club has been linked with numerous possibilities, and it was somewhat surprising that no player was brought in during the winter transfer window. So for now, United supporters will have to deal with the heart-attack inducing defence that has plagued the side since the beginning of the season. The positive we can take, however, is the sight of David De Gea in net, at least for the rest of the season.

This article was researched and written by Nathan Kanuch. You can follow him on Twitter.

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