At the start of Louis Van Gaal’s reign, one Manchester United defender in particular was expected to flourish.
Jonny Evans was the man who was expected to become the leader of the defence under the Dutchman, even being touted for the captaincy at one point during the summer. But while Evans’ future has been left in limbo after a series of poor performances and fans calling for his head, another Northern Irishman has come to prominence.
Young Paddy McNair was nowhere near the first team last season or even at the start of this. He joined the academy as an attacking midfielder and has gradually moved further back the pitch under Warren Joyce and has seemingly settled in the central defensive position.
Van Gaal seemingly took a liking to youngster Tyler Blackett at the start of the season, with his left-footedness seemingly working in his favour. As the season has progressed though, Blackett has dropped further down the pecking-order with McNair now moving up.
Behind the senior defenders Evans, Jones, Smalling and Marcos Rojo, McNair is next on the list. But McNair has arguably shown this season that he could be the main man at the club. At 20 years old, McNair has shown his talent on the ball and his professionalism off it already in his short career.
His passing is good, his aerial ability is one of his best attributes and he’s now slouch when thrust into a footrace. We’ve seen him played on the right-flank this week and he turned in a man of the match performance, something else that Louis Van Gaal will be happy to see.
The boss has mentioned previously that he favours “multi-functional” players rather than “specialist” players, which could give McNair the edge in any future battles for positions. While Blackett is also composed in the left-back position, his defensive ability is just clearly not quite on McNair’s level.
In an interview I did with journalist Miguel Delaney, I asked him about the youth players that Van Gaal had used so far and he name-dropped McNair as one to watch for the future.
“McNair hugely impressive, Blackett good but not quite as good as McNair. He’s just been so assured. There’s also the fact that he has that edge to his game that I think is missing in many modern centre-halves.”
When McNair made his debut for the Reds it wasn’t because he’d earned a first-team spot per-say. A whole host of injuries saw him and Tom Thorpe promoted, with many calling for Thorpe to start. Nobody was sure why McNair had been chosen ahead of Thorpe, and some still aren’t, but McNair never looked back. He turned in a wonderful performance against West Ham, helping United to a big 2-1 win including an amazing defensive clearance at the death to keep his side ahead.
Michael Keane and Tom Thorpe are yet to get a real chance at the club in the first team, with Michael Keane now completing a permanent deal to Burnley. Blackett’s start to the season seems to have dozed off and he is now seemingly out of favour. There had been some concern for the young duo’s future at the club, with both men’s contracts due to expire at the end of the season. Louis Van Gaal has put an end to one half of that speculation, confirming that 19 year-old McNair has extended his stay at Old Trafford.
Following the Leicester game, Van Gaal said: “Paddy McNair, now, is coming from out of the youth, he has extended his contract, so he is a Manchester United player.”
While he was unknown at the start of the season and wasn’t the fans’ first choice to step up in that position from the reserve squad, McNair has made himself a fan favourite and the latest top talent to emerge from the Manchester United academy. He could prove to be the answer to the central defensive issues the club have had all along and while he isn’t nearly the finished product yet, the future is bright for the young defender.