Right, we’ve got a lot to cover here, and not a lot of time to cover it in, so i’m gonna dive straight into this with a simple sentence: “On paper, our defence is a mess.”
Let’s just think about that for a bit. For a side that housed one of the most prolific centre back partnerships in Premier League history, how did it get so bad that Michael Carrick is often considered a viable option at the back? The sheer lack of consistency certainly doesn’t help; van Gaal having to draft in Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair early on in the season is surely proof of that, but he’s had almost three transfer windows to pull in some reinforcements! Why isn’t nothing being done about this shoddy back line? Does van Gaal see something the rest of us don’t see?
So we actually have made movements in the right back position. Matteo Darmian has been signed from Torino, presumably to take over from winger-turned full back Antonio Valencia. As a result of this move, Willoughby favourite Rafael has made his way across the channel to Ligue 1 runners-up Lyon (fun fact, Rafa picked number 20 as his squad number because United have won the league 20 times). At left back, one would imagine Luke Shaw will find a way to stay fit for more than 20 minutes this season. Failing that, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, and even Tyler Blackett proved more than capable filling in at times last season. Fingers crossed Luke can start to deliver on some of the promise than got him here in the first place.
Centre backs are where things start to get a bit sticky. Chris “Balling” Smalling, Phil “Jonesy” Jones, Paddy “Paddy” McNair, and Jonny “oh fuck off already” Evans make up out centre back options, as well as the aforementioned Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Tyler Blackett. Not a great deal here, I’ll concede. That being said, Balling was a standout performer for me in the final few weeks of last months, successfully nestling Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Christian Benteke and Olivier Giroud in his back pocket. The man must wear clown trousers or something. So impressed was Big Lou with Balling’s efforts, he claimed he was his 3rd choice captain. Not bad going for a man written off after the stupidest sending off in recent Manchester derby history.
When it comes to who partners the big man is another matter. Seeing a lot of time in that position in pre-season was one Daley Blind, who appears to be the Dutch John o’Shea, in regards to his versatility. Expect him to stake a claim for the goalkeeper role next season. As for Marcos Rojo, he spent a season getting used to the league, and looked pretty good in parts, but he did little to convince me he could be more than a squad player. In fairness, Blind could be a welcome choice. He’s a fine passer of the ball, he appears to keep a cool head, and he’s incredibly composed. He’s everything Jonesy is not.
Phil Jones was proclaimed as a future England captain the day he signed for United. Steve Kean claimed he would be better than John Terry. Sir Alex himself suggested he could become United’s best ever signing. Some of that praise may have been over-cooked. Had he not set us back £16.5 million, he might not even be at the club anymore. He’s clumsy, he throws himself into a tackle and ALWAYS looks like he’ll get injured as a result, and he headered the ball off of Giroud’s foot in May. He’s a parody of what English defenders are stereotyped as. And no matter how much heart he shows, this is a big, big season for him. While he is only 23 years old, and about 3 years from when he might be reaching something close to his peak, he’s now going into his seventh Premier League season, and he has shown very little development from those early performances.
The experienced head in all this SHOULD be Jonny Evans; a man who looked VERY good in Sir Alex’s final season when paired with Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic, but has fallen off the face of the planet ever since. So poor his performances last season were that he was the first name brought up whenever a potential centre back signing was mentioned in conversation. I introduce to the “Jonny Evans Test (patent pending)”. If someone mentions a centre back, asked the question: “Is he better than Jonny Evans?”. If YES; sign the man.
Clearly this a defensive corp that needs a leader. And whether that leader is promoted from within, or recruitment externally (come on, Ramos. Do us a job.), it needs one sharpish. Given Balling’s end of season form, maybe it’s him?
On the topic of this defence, a lot has been made of how bad it is perceived to be. This defence conceded the 4th least amount of goals last season. You’d hope, with an extra years experience, it can improve on that. I’m not saying that it doesn’t need work, but maybe that’s Big Lou’s thinking behind not splashing on a centre back (just yet)? If we can keep a back four fit for a few months, and give them a solid run of games, who knows what might happen. That’s something we didn’t have last season.
TL;DR – The defence isn’t actually that bad, could probably do with an experienced body in there, but injuried are stopping it from showing us its true potential.