Manchester United went double Dutch over the Summer transfer window, securing the marquee capture of the already rather popular Robin van Persie. But it was our final recruit that certainly polarised opinion and raised a few eyebrows in Manchester.
When Alexander Buttner, previously linked with Fulham and had a move to Southampton fall through, joined from Vitesse, there was initially an underwhelming sense of disappointment, especially after being linked all summer with Everton and England full-back Leighton Baines – considered one of the best in the country. Everton dug their heels in and retained their star for another season.
The trepidation could not only be heard from the terraces, Dutch goalkeeping legend Edwin van Der Sar was as surprised as anybody to see Buttner holding aloft the United shirt and being paraded at Old Trafford. It’s fair to say that Buttner was and still is to many, an unknown quantity. As the dust settled after the bedlam and chaos that is transfer deadline day, people had time to reflect on our summer business, and overall it has the makings of being remembered as a very productive and astute Summer.
Of course, we didn’t need reminding of the sheer quality Robin Van Persie possesses, 4 goals in 3 games speaks volumes. Sir Alex was right in his prediction that this year the title will not come down to the minute fractions of goal difference. But Van Persie’s firepower should ensure that he comes close to bagging 30 goals for a second consecutive year, provided he doesn’t have to go near the United medical room.
United have also secured one of England’s top young prospects in Nick Powell, and all but signed Angelo Henriquez. Needless to say how much of an impact Japanese poster-boy Shinji Kagawa has already had on the team. He will only get better and better as he continues to adapt to the English way of life and style of play.
But with Sir Alex deciding that Fabio needs to continue his development elsewhere, albeit temporarily and Zeki Fryers, the local lad who preferred the delights of Belgium over his boyhood club, moving on, it was in fact a priority to provide sufficient cover for Patrice Evra. But was the motive behind the Buttner transfer just to merely provide cover or are we thinking ahead?
Last season for not one Patrice will look fondly on for a number of reasons. Evra has not always been on good terms with his national team, having previously led a player revolt which led to the sacking of Raymond Domenech at the 2010 World Cup, there was controversy ahead of Euro 2012 when in a friendly against Serbia, Evra was accused and caught on camera wiping his backside with a team-mate’s shirt.
This was to set the tone for a rocky season ahead. There was the infamous race row involving Luis Suarez, just days after the race row and days before the home derby match, Evra’s brother tragically died. The grit and fighting qualities he showed, to continue to give his all was nothing short of admirable. God knows what the man must have been going through. The loss of our colossal skipper Nemanja Vidic resulted in Evra being given the captain’s armband for the remainder of the season.
It’s enough pressure having to constantly churn out high-quality performances for United week-in week-out, but the unfortunate circumstances that overshadowed the on-field performances must have been hell for our Frenchmen. The events off-field certainly had a detrimental effect on Evra’s displays. Evra is not the player he was when he was at the peak of his powers 2 years ago, our achilles heel last year was definitely in his area. Often we were susceptible to attacks down the opposition’s right, and there have been seldom signs of improvement since, even though this year is a clean slate and a fresh start for Patrice.
So what can Buttner bring to the table? I attended his first match in United red, the reserves took on Tottenham’s reserves at Altrincham’s Moss Lane. For the most part, I could definitely see why Ferguson decided that Buttner was the answer, and he seems to have the quality to be more than just cover. Buttner offers something different, he is very much in the mould of Spurs’ Gareth Bale when he started out at left-back: he runs down the touchline and crosses the ball, this is to his advantage because he is genuinely all left-foot. Plus, he has a fair number of tricks up his sleeve, which can compliment the winger ahead of him and add another dimension to the attack. He can also take a mean free-kick, very much akin to Bale. I am not trying to say that Buttner is close to Gareth Bale, just the potential to succeed at United is there.
Moving from his attacking qualities to his bread and butter, defending. He should also have no problem adapting to the brutal, physical nature of the Premier League, on first glance he enjoyed sticking his foot in and relished the battle. He is not reckless though and rarely dives in, something we see all too frequently from Evra these days. In terms of positioning, the Dutchmen is rather sound. Evra gets caught out of position too often, whilst an open, expansive style reaps its rewards at one end, it can be fatal at the other. Buttner also fitted the trend of Ferguson signing players from young to mid twenties, a criteria that Evra is no longer. He cannot really rely on his previous lightning speed to get back in position when attacks break down, there is a suggestion that Evra’s legs are starting to go, Buttner’s pace will also be desirable over the coming months.
The advantage of Evra being the only defensive constant has cost him physically. He was the only United defender last year to play in every single Premier League game, he is now approaching close to 300 games in just 6 years. Left-back has probably been the sole position which Sir Alex has not been able to freely rotate. Fabio had some rotten luck with injuries and lack of form, meaning there was no real competition to Evra’s position. Did Evra become complacent, knowing that he’d be in the starting XI every week? There have been a number of factors which could explain the trough of the past 18 months or so. Sir Alex recognised there could be a potential weakness in an area and he has accordingly strengthened.
This does not entirely render Evra surplus to requirements, he will still probably be the main man this campaign, Sir Alex is looking ahead though, but has not totally discarded the Frenchmen: “We have to protect the future. That is sensible. Evra is 31 and Alex comes to challenge that position. But nobody has played more games than Evra over the last five years. He has played with injuries — he has guts. He has been up and down that touchline for five years. It’s 240 games he has played. Patrice has been an absolute soldier.”
Perhaps the arrival of Buttner is a fortright and direct message to Evra, to get him out of the comfort zone he has been in and to give him a proverbial kick up the backside. Evra relishes a fight and a challenge, and will not give up his left-back spot willingly. Either way, whether it’s an improved and hungrier Patrice Evra or determined and fearless Alex Buttner, the battle for the left-back spot will be worth keeping your eye on this season.