“Long-term, I could imagine a central defence forming around Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.” — Alex Ferguson, My Autobiography.
Paul Hayward, Chief Sports Writer at the Telegraph, assisted Sir Alex Ferguson in ghostwriting the noted autobiography above and was later ridiculed for the amount of errors found inside.
Another error, although no fault of Hayward, is one regarding Jonny Evans forming a defensive partnership with Chris Smalling at the heart of Manchester United’s defence.
After two, or arguably more, unsatisfactory years on the trot at Old Trafford blighted by terrible form and injury, Evans joined West Bromwich Albion in August. He spent eleven years at the club and during that time married Helen, presenter of MUTV, the club’s official channel, and once looked a formidable part of the United back four.
Ferguson saw the Northern Ireland international as part of the answer to replacing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. However sadly, once the Scot retired as manager, United fans then became familiar with a player shot of confidence that appeared all over the place.
Evans became apprehensive and there were only so many risks Louis van Gaal could take with a side dropping points and later in the middle of a fight for top four. Then, following a misfortunate case of events, the Belfast born centre-back was surpassed in the defensive pecking order by Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett – two inexperienced graduates from the United youth system.
An array of injuries in the defensive department meant van Gaal had no other choice but to put faith in youngsters. Although, a look at the Dutchman’s managerial career will inform you that it’s a tradition of his philosophy.
Reminiscent to Evans as a young centre-back, McNair took his opportunities, therefore, was awarded more time in the first-team. Meanwhile, however, the 20-year-old returned home to Manchester last week after spending time in a Helsinki hospital following an abdominal injury picked up on international duty.
Next up is Chris Smalling. A completely different story.
Van Gaal rarely gets credit despite putting United back on track, but the way in which Smalling has vastly improved under his management cannot be described as anything other than overwhelming.
Smalling, formerly of Fulham and Maidstone United, went from being a ‘what if’ defender to one worthy of being considered among the best centre-backs in the Premier League.
The 2014/15 season saw Smalling sent off in the Manchester derby following a few challenges that showed up the player’s inexperience to take leadership at the back.
However, following his suspension, Smalling came back a different player.
Whatever it was van Gaal said to Smalling, the England international returned a leader which is more evident this season. And now the national side have van Gaal to thank for finally having a reliable centre-back to call upon after seeing John Terry and Rio Ferdinand retire in recent years.
While Ferguson expected such heights for Evans and Smalling, Rafael was also seen as one with a bright future by the man that brought him to Manchester from Rio de Janeiro.
Da Silva was considered by many as being too rash and a liability defensively. The Brazilian now finds himself in a non-competitive league that is almost governed by a club soaked with oil money in Paris.
Lyon, a club with tradition and history, are not as successful as they once were but have a right-back that deserves cherishing.
Like another full-back that left Old Trafford since Ferguson’s retirement, the 25-year-old got Manchester United. Rafael played with his heart on his sleeve and was up for the big occasions. I felt a sense of remorse when Louis van Gaal left him out in the cold and eventually told the feisty right-back to be on his way.
It has happened with the Brazil national team too, but that squad consists of world class attack-minded full-backs and has done for years. There’s no open invitation with a conservative-minded coach, and that hardy helps players like Rafael who eagerly seek a breakthrough on the international stage.
The 2012 Summer Olympics in London proved to be the final straw for Rafael. A crucial mistake in the final by the former Manchester United youth graduate against Mexico meant Brazil missed out a gold medal. They lost 2-1, so it’s probably harsh to solely blame him for their shortcomings but his involvement since has been non-existent.
Hopefully things start to look up for Rafael. United have moved on and, as much as I adored the Brazilian, have a better right-back in Matteo Darmian. But regardless of being a better alternative option than Antonio Valencia, the superior Da Silva twin deserves to be playing regular football.
Then there’s Phil Jones, who is slightly more difficult to judge. There’s talent in the England international but he needs a break from the treatment room. Until that happens we’re not going to see much consistency from the former Blackburn Rovers centre-back.
One thing you cannot fault Jones for is his willingness to put his body on the line – something that can also be an inconvenience. The 23-year-old has often found himself in the middle of unnecessary challenges resulting in lengthily injuries but hopefully through experience that will be addressed.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic both had a distinctive defensive proficiency about their game, knowing when and when not to stick a foot or head in.
It may also be a matter of becoming a victim of misuse. That, hand-in-hand with injuries, could prove disastrous for Jones, being another seen as a utility player and ultimately paying the consequence for not spending the peak of his career in a preferred position.
“Jones is going to be a phenomenal player,” said Ferguson in his final month in change at Old Trafford.
“He has a fantastic influence, no matter where he plays. He has an instinct for the game and a drive about him. I have no idea where his best position is. He could play anywhere on the pitch. But he will be one of the best players we have ever had.”
Moving on, the question now is who can England and United find to partner Smalling at the heart of defence. In an ideal world, I would say Jones, but things don’t always go to plan and his career is still very much in the balance. John Stones looks more likely to win the battle of being England’s next prominent centre-back.
Discussion in the comment section welcome as always.