Last season Manchester United conceded 35 goals in 38 Premier League games, a solid defensive record. So how can this defence be holding United back? The fact of the matter is that last season’s record reflects, more honestly, Louis van Gaal’s tactics and turgid style of football, rather than the defence itself. With the amount of possession the Dutchman’s team often had, it is to be expected that fewer goals will be conceded. 30 of the 35 goals conceded last season were scored inside the penalty area, while 12 of the 13 goals conceded this season have been inside the penalty area or in one on one situations. This would suggest that United are giving too many chances away, players being pulled out of position, creating gaps for the opposition to exploit. The issue lay in that not one of the Red Devils’ first team defenders are without distinct issues – with the obvious exception of David De Gea.
At right back, there is no conclusive answer. Antonio Valencia has put in some fine performances, and made some particularly impressive last-ditch challenges of late. However, it is the need for the last-ditch challenges which exemplifies why Valencia cannot be viewed as the long-term solution. When at Old Trafford, where United will dominate the ball, the Ecuadorian represents a fine option, providing width that is occasionally lacking with Juan Mata starting wide and drifting into central positions. Issues begin to appear when facing higher caliber opposition, notably away from home.
The former Wigan man has spent his whole career being trained to attack and hold wide positions, he doesn’t appear to possess the defensive nous to know when to drop in centrally and compact the defence – this being made apparent by the space Eden Hazard found himself between full back and centre back throughout the October clash at Stamford Bridge. On the other end of the spectrum, Matteo Darmian appears to offer solidarity in defence in a way that Valencia simply cannot provide it. Although the Italian in turn does not come close to providing the attacking output required of a Manchester United full back, the Old Trafford faithful have been spoiled with lung-busting overlaps from their full backs on a regular basis and will not tolerate any less. United need to invest in a right back who can fulfil both his attacking duties as well as putting in a shift at the back.
As for central defence, in Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly can be found two defenders who present the same issues. Both Smalling and Bailly provide physicality, pace and a fantastic aerial presence. They both represent the enforcer of a defensive partnership and both need a composed partner to reach their full potential. They both need a Ferdinand to their Vidic. Bailly, on the evidence of his start at Manchester United, appears an incredibly bright prospect, who could potentially command the back line at the Theatre of Dreams for many a year; however, the former Villarreal man looks to have a mistake or two in him at present and needs to be given the time to make those mistakes and develop. As for Smalling, the 26-year-old is but a silhouette of the player often handed the captain’s armband last season. Without the calming influence of Daley Blind, Smalling looks lost, struggling to know where to be and at what time to be there. Again, this lack of positional awareness was evident at Stamford Bridge.
So, surely the answer is to play Blind alongside one of Bailly or Smalling? The Dutch international presents issues of his own. Nobody seems to know his position. Blind manages to perform in every position asked of him without specialising in any. The former Ajax captain is clever in central defence, anticipating his opponent’s actions to avoid a physical altercation. However, flaws in his game at the back are apparent. Blind lacks the ability to impose himself on a striker in the way that a specialised central defender would. Against City at home, Blind evidenced this in the build up to Kevin De Bruyne’s goal. A more imposing centre half would have left De Bruyne on his rear and City would not have taken the lead. Unfortunately, United cannot afford to carry that kind of weakness if they are to dominate again. Blind’s lack of height and build is truly a shame, otherwise he could become a world class central defender. United must look to bring in a central defender in the mould of, if not specifically, Leonardo Bonucci or Diego Godin – players who can impose themselves on a striker but also possess composure to complement Smalling or Bailly.
Left back presents the one position in this back four which requires no investment, Luke Shaw is the future and will most likely develop into a world class full back, possessing fantastic defensive abilities while presenting an attacking threat. The issue is re-building the confidence of the 20-year-old after such a devastating injury; which is why the presence of Daley Blind in the squad is fortunate for Shaw as it allows sufficient cover that he can be eased back into the fold at his own pace.
With a world class goalkeeper in David De Gea, a potential world beater in Luke Shaw, along with the raw potential of Eric Bailly; United are only two carefully chosen additions away from a defence which can support the attacking team Jose Mourinho appears to be constricting. However until then, positional issues and individual limitations will cause United to continue leaking goals when looking to attack – which could well prove the difference between success and failure.
Written by Jonathan Murphy