Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic’s recent announcement that he will depart the club at the end of the current season conclusively signalled the dissolution of the formidable back-line that formed a crucial part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s final Old Trafford side. The news, coupled with the creaking limbs of 35-year-old Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra’s almost inevitable summer return to France, leaves David Moyes needing to reconstruct his back-line. Fortunately for the ex-Everton chief, he has inherited a squad rather well equipped to deal with such upheaval.
United’s three other senior centre backs are Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans. All three men have come in for some criticism during their time at the club, but each have their best years ahead of them (Evans is the oldest of the trio, aged 26) and have shown signs they can step into the breach left by Vidic and Ferdinand.
Still just 22 years old, Phil Jones is the youngest of Moyes’ central defensive options, but is also the most talented. His superb athleticism is his biggest asset but has also stagnated his development. Both Moyes and Ferguson often deemed Jones’ energy to be best served at right-back or in central midfield, while his all-action style has brought about injuries; all of which has limited his game-time in his preferred centre-back role.
However, the ex-Blackburn man is the best young central defender in England, with Sir Alex Ferguson claiming last April that he could be “one of the best players [United] have ever had” and regular game-time at the heart of the Red Devils’ defence should see Jones begin to realise his huge potential. Also, with Phil Jagielka turning 32 after this summer’s World Cup and Gary Cahill still failing to inspire confidence on the international stage, there is a real chance he could nail down an England starting birth, too.
The 2013-14 season has seen Chris Smalling become the focal point of much mockery and ire, due, in the main, to some clumsy performances at right-back. In the same way that constant positional rotation has not benefited England team-mate Jones, Smalling has struggled when stationed at full-back. However, this is hardly surprising as nearly every defender plying their trade in the Premier League would find it hard to perform consistently well while being shunted between positions. Therefore, it is harsh to deem the less experienced Smalling unfit for purpose at United, based on some poor showings in the role, as some observers have done.
In previous seasons, the 24 year-old has shown fantastic aerial prowess and composure. Such attributes convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to spend £12million to lure him away from Fulham and make Smalling a fixture in Roy Hodgson’s England squads, but there is undoubtedly still room for improvement. In April 2012, Vincent Kompany rather easily escaped him to nod home a vital goal as Manchester City surged towards the league title, and lapses in concentration are still too common. Nevertheless, former centre-back Moyes should realise that Smalling has the necessary tools to develop into a player capable of forging a successful career at Old Trafford, and in the international arena.
Since the duo lined up together at the UEFA U21 European Championships in 2011, it has been widely suggested that the Jones-Smalling axis would be at the heart of both Manchester United and England’s defences for years to come. However, the emergence of Jonny Evans in recent years provides as strong a threat to that premonition as any.
The Northern Irishman is arguably the least naturally gifted of the current crop of United centre-backs, but has flourished due to such consistent exposure to first-team football. Evans was criticised in the early part of his United career, as he struggled to adapt to the Premier League, while ex-Red Gerard Pique collected trophies on both the domestic and international stage. Nevertheless, Sir Alex Ferguson showed faith in the Belfast boy, and, having remained largely injury free, the 26-year-old has blossomed into an accomplished performer, tipped as a future captain for club and country by Norman Whiteside and Ferguson.
Despite the having three top centre-backs at his disposal, it is almost certain that David Moyes will want to enter next season with four. While Rio Ferdinand’s departure hasn’t been confirmed, he is yet to sign a new deal at the club and has underperformed this season. So where should Moyes look for a reinforcement?
It is widely accepted that the Scot has a lot of shopping to do in the summer transfer window, with many onlookers suggesting that he picks up a centre-half in the close-season market. Given the youthfulness of his current options, buying another player of a similar age would be futire, giving Moyes two options if he is to make a purchase.
Moyes may opt to make a big-money purchase, splashing the cash on an experienced central defender in the prime of his career, to bolster his currently vulnerable defence. The problem with this approach is that there aren’t many world-class defenders plying their trade in this era, meaning he is likely to be paying inflated prices, for an inferior standard of player. Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala and Benfica’s Ezequiel Garay have been the two names most frequently linked with an Old Trafford switch but price-tags of around £30million do not represent good value for money, for it is doubtful that either man would represent a huge improvement on United’s current options.
United’s other option in the transfer market is to make a cheaper purchase, bringing in an experienced defender to nurture Jones, Smalling and Evans, and providing reliable cover in the event of injury. Manchester City and Liverpool made similar moves this season, but the purchases of Martin Demichelis and Kolo Toure have produced somewhat mixed results. Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers have hailed their experienced aquisitions, but both men have cost their side crucial matches. Furthermore, the Red Devils need to put more pressure on the ball, which intensifies the need for centre-backs who are quick across the ground, rendering in the arrival of an aging player somewhat counter-productive.
The lack of value in the transfer market, coupled with the fact that any addition to the defensive ranks is likely to be fourth-choice centre-half, mean that Moyes may find the players most suited to his needs in the youth ranks at Carrington. If the 51-year-old decided to take his predecessor’s lead and put his faith in youth, his best options are Englishmen Tom Thorpe and Michael Keane.
Aged 21 (just a year younger than Jones), Thorpe has recently returned to Old Trafford following an injury sustained in his debut for Birmingham City, following a deadline day loan move. While Moyes’ willingness to loan the youngster to a Championship side may not appear to be a glowing endorsement of his qualities, he slotted into a Premier League loan spot vacated by Fulham’s Dan Burn. You’ll remember how crucial Burn was as the Cottagers frustrated United, two weeks ago; showing both that Brum boss Lee Clark can spot a talented defender and also that a young player can bridge the gap between the divisions. Thorpe has also played for England at every level from Under 16 to 21, making 26 apperances in total, so the weight of expectation at Old Trafford shouldn’t be an unfamilar burden.
Keane, also 21, has had two loan spells in the second tier, making 22 appearances for Leicester City last season, before a four-game period with Steve McClaren’s promotion chasing Derby County this term. The captain of United’s Under 21 side has made 8 appearances for England in the same age group, scoring 3 goals. Two seasons spent on loan at Sunderland were a vital component of Jonny Evans’ development, and Keane’s similar exposure to regular football would stand him in good stead if called upon by Moyes.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have left David Moyes with a great deal of work to do in order to revitalise the Manchester United midfield, but the outgoing Glaswegian wasn’t so negligent with regards the heart of the Old Trafford defence. The blow of losing Vidic, who is likely to be followed by Ferdinand, will be softened by the array of talent from which Moyes can choose their replacement, which runs even deeper than the senior ranks. The beleaguered Scot is likely to be very thankful for that, as he looks ahead to an extremely busy summer.