In the first of a series of 2015/16 previews, Manchester La La La’s man in Germany runs the rule over the United defence…
Singled out by many fans and journalists alike as an area needing improvement this season, United’s defence is still one lacking in top-bracket experience. Although perhaps mitigated by the mental game of the midfielders ahead of them (Carrick et al), the back line could yet benefit from a cool head to marshal the raw talents of Jones, Smalling and to a lesser extent Marcos Rojo. It may now be fair to say that any hope of Evans maturing into a leader-by-example is lost, with the centre back failing to feature consistently for the past two seasons. However, the blossoming Blackett and McNair will add both competition and hunger to the back line should they opt to stay rather than continue their development on loan.
Out wide on the right, the limited talents of Antonio Valencia have been supplemented by Italian international Matteo Darmian – whilst on the left, the burgeoning Luke Shaw can be rotated with the likes of Daley Blind and Ashley Young (should LVG plan to use them both again at full back). Elsewhere at full back, one suspects that Rafael’s time at Old Trafford may be coming to an end, following another inconsistent, injury-strewn season in 2014/15. Having said that, the Brazillian has shown enough previously that he may still come good.
All-in-all, we’re heading into 2015/16 with virtually the same set of players as last season, with just the one acquisition to speak of so far. A lot is dependent on how LVG wants United to play, but with last year’s consistent defensive run through November-April and a full calender year since the “Iron Tulip” first arrived at Carrington, the defensive frailties of the Moyes experiment can be eliminated entirely this season should the system continue to stabilise. That is of course, the great hope, but the uncertainty in the most vital of all defensive positions threatens to undermine any such optimism.
THAT GOALKEEPER PROBLEM
LVG doesn’t know what’s happening, Real Madrid have gone quiet, but David De Gea is surely making some of his final appearances in a United shirt. It is probably just a case of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s in the contract, but with nothing but speculation in the media, one wonders how close the conclusion is, or if this could get messy. In all honesty, the only outcome that wouldn’t hurt United would be a new deal for the Spaniard and a new focus on his role in the club’s future – and that is looking incredibly unlikely. The big risk now is that the distractions lead to despondent performances, with De Gea leaving on a free next year.
All this of course is muddied further by fellow Hispanophones Victor Valdes and Sergio Romero. The former was picked up in January before being transfer listed this summer after supposedly refusing to play in a reserves match, whereas Argentina no.1 Romero appears to have been bought to either provide cover or slot into De Gea’s place should he leave. Truth be told, there are few goalkeepers that can take the former Athletico man’s place between the sticks should he leave this window, with virtually any signing being a downgrade. Though United have been linked with France’s Hugo Lloris for most of the summer, one suspects that a deal with Spurs would only fully materialise after an agreement between Madrid and Manchester is reached over De Gea.
HITS, MISSES AND ONES TO WATCH
With the defence unsettled by injury for most of last season, it is tempting to think that United will be rotating heavily again at the back. It is more than fair to consider a number of the defence injury-prone, as Jones, Evans and Rafael spent considerable time in the treatment room throughout 2014/15 and beyond. The fact that 8 different players featured at centre back could be considered as a sign of depth, but is more accurately an indication that fitness is a problem for the back line. Through the injury crises of last season however, Smalling grew into the most consistent defender at the club, while Rojo settled quickly and Valencia – although limited in contribution – was ever-present.
Will injuries be a problem again this season? Who knows, but we can have a stab at which players will perform and which ones will be below par. So who will be the hits and misses? Time for a few gutsy predictions…
HIT – MARCOS ROJO
After settling into his duty on the pitch with relative ease last season, Rojo looks set to at the very least provide a similar level of consistency this year. Aggressive, brave and composed on the ball, the 25-year-old looks set to enhance his game further as he reaches the peak of his career at Old Trafford in the coming years. A Vidic of the future if he realises his true potential.
HIT – CHRIS SMALLING
Off the back of a half season of consistently excellent performances, one can be forgiven for thinking that the former Maidstone player is already the natural leader in the back line. His aerial presence and combativeness is now supplemented by a newly discovered steely determination after his mistake in the derby at Eastlands. A patchy injury record may haunt him once more, but if he stays fit he will be a mainstay at the back.
MISS – JONNY EVANS
A few seasons back, Evans looked set to become a true first-teamer after a stream of composed performances as understudy to Ferdinand/Vidic. At one point, Sir Alex even described him as the best defender in the country. He failed to truly eliminate the mistakes in his game, though, and with two injury ravaged seasons having flown by, the Belfast-born international looks to have little left to offer United. It feels like the right time to sell for all parties; a rotation option at best.
MISS – ANTONIO VALENCIA
On the surface, it feels strange to include the Ecuadorian as a defender, yet it is the only place that LvG seems to trust Valencia. With an eye for the safe ball and a crippling one-footedness, the former flying winger’s contribution to the attack dwindled so much in recent seasons that he has become a utility player at right back. With a replacement brought in, he will be mostly used as a rotation option and in games when defensive nouse isn’t a priority.
ONE TO WATCH – MATTEO DARMIAN
The tough-tackling Italian is sure to win many fans at Old Trafford. With a top class work rate and a technical game to match, he waltzes into the right back position virtually unchallenged with Rafael regressing and Valencia the only real competition. Expect all-action performances and a certain “Unitedness” from Darmian as he completes the right sided defensive puzzle and adds attacking impetus to the flank.
ONE TO WATCH – LUKE SHAW
If reports out of Carrington are to be believed, Shaw was lambasted by LVG early last season for being out of shape and for failing to look after his body in pre-season. Stronger, leaner and sharper on the ball, Shaw looks to have righted the wrongs of last season and will be looking forward to more game time after injuries meant he didn’t start his Old Trafford career with the bang he would have liked. Time is on his side, of course and a clutch of composed performances against tough opposition in the spring show that his game is moving up to the required level.
Up Next… Midfield
Next time we look at the midfield, where two shiny new signings seek to solve a problem that has rankled for a good few seasons. The Eurozone patchwork now includes a Frenchman and a German to add to the Belgian, Spanish and Dutch contingencies. But how will it all fit together? Let’s hope any systemic progress is a little faster than the politics of Brussels as LVG seeks to balance an area of the field that is brimful of talent for the first time in a generation.