Manchester United’s Defensive Frailties

Smalling picks up his red card versus City.
Smalling picks up his red card versus City.

James Milner went down and struck the floor. A leg was out, it was rash. United fans had their hands on their heads; downbeat, distraught, silent. It was a second yellow card for Chris Smalling, one of Manchester United’s last senior centre-halves remaining who would walk after 39 minutes. Joined for an early bath by Marcos Rojo who left the field with a shoulder injury, the responsibility was no longer theirs but the Manchester derby was to be in the hands of what looked to be a seemingly young, makeshift defence. A 1-0 defeat was to be the outcome, and no win in three for Van Gaal’s men.

The summer of 2014 looked exceedingly joyous for United fans, and ferociously viscous from their new boss. Louis Van Gaal was to be appointed, the ‘tactical genius’ joined on the back of the Netherlands National Team’s decent runabout in the World Cup. 3-5-2 were the numbers muttering around Old Trafford. Would he adopt his famous approach? Three centre-backs, who will they be and who will they sign? Hummels? Vermaelen? Garay? Nope.

The expensive pair have no say in what goes on behind them in the United defence.
The expensive pair have no say in what goes on behind them in the United defence.

Holes were certainly left in this squad, holes that were unattended to back in the glorious Fergie days. The difference? He knew how to make them winners. Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra all veterans, departed after Moyes’ nightmare leaving a fragile back-line, and one lacking experience and mentality. In stepped the saviour; Louis Van Gaal, and with his war-chest of over £150million surely replacements were deemed a certainty. £75.7million was spent on two forwards, Radamel Falcao’s loan fee and Angel Di Maria’s permanent signature from Madrid left the squad top-heavy, whilst Ander Herrera was also signed for the big bucks. Three defensive arrivals joined forces with United’s ‘Gaalacticos’, this however proving to be a subliminal problem.

Marcos Rojo, who spent the previous two months to his arrival operating at left-back for Argentina’s late-downfall in the World Cup, was welcomed as a centre-back. Daley Blind, who performed valiantly for the Netherlands in Brazil, joined up with Van Gaal from Ajax with whom he has a spectacular relationship with. Another left-back, this time playing at defensive midfield. And finally, Luke Shaw, England’s hottest defensive prospect signed for a staggering £30million fee from the eroding Southampton. Another left-back, finally, to play there. Three left-backs were signed, all versatile nonetheless, but all deployed elsewhere as United started the season.

Inexperienced Paddy McNnair with his defensive partner Marcos Rojo.
Inexperienced Paddy McNnair with his defensive partner Marcos Rojo.

Ever since Van Gaal failed to purchase Hummels and co. it has been patently obvious that he’s missing a platinum centre-half. Entering the season with Rojo, Smalling, Jones and Evans was always going to be a risk, especially due to the latter three’s roller-coaster form. Moreover, the season began, with United earning draw, defeat, draw, defeat. Hilarious for a neutral, but murder for Van Gaal. Here we saw how injury plagued this United defence is. It played like the hokey-cokey. Jones returns, Smalling gets injured. Smalling returns, Evans gets injured and so forth. Luke Shaw was dubbed ‘unfit’ by his coach, cracking method of motivation may I add, whilst Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair were summoned by the aggressive Dutchman. Yep, that’s right, who are they? Two 19 year olds to be precise. All with 0 Premier League experience.

Inexperience is one major problem. Luke Shaw proving to be the fittest, most experienced Premier League defender in the squad is a worry. In stepped Tyler Blackett, granted, he didn’t look too bad. He had a fine performance against QPR before his torment at Leicester. Conceding four goals in the second half, Blackett was also sent off for a rash challenge in the box. There’s where the inexperience lies. Paddy McNair today received his Northern Ireland call-up. Smashing stuff for the 19 year-old but it’s a shame he isn’t what United need right now. Poor old David De Gea though. He plays consistently brilliant in every game he appears, but bless him. He lines up with a different defence in front of him every game. The back-four are yet to gel and become a unit in which they can progress TOGETHER. Deploying Antonio Valencia, the right winger at right back in your biggest game of the season? Fielding Michael Carrick as a centre-back after 6 months out injured? It’s a worry for United fans, as they face another 6 weeks without Rojo, according to reports. Mismatching more players and defensive coverings occurring all over the place, a solid back-line is what they desire.

They've had their legends. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister pose together.
They’ve had their legends. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister pose together.

It doesn’t bode well with any manager when a player receives a red card. It’s a let-down in all honesty, a costly error that defenders are always prone to. United would be helped if they survived a couple of weeks without being on the receiving end of one. First Tyler Blackett, then Chris Smalling. The muppets. It was a needless first booking for Smalling, standing in-front of Hart like he was Thierry Henry. Sorry pal, in this day and age that’s a booking. Diving into Milner, evidently on a yellow, needlessly too, well come on. It leaves me, and the rest of the footballing world to ponder… Do any of this United defence possess a brain cell? Let alone a brain. Rash challenges, idiocy, mocking the referee. Come on Van Gaal, if you were any sort of ‘tactical magician’ like you claim your players would earn some respect for you and keep it shut. Not only this but United have been the holders of some of the world’s top centre-backs: Jaap Stam, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Rio Ferdinand… some downfall eh? In terms of red cards, they’ve had their Roy Keanes, Nemanja Vidic’s, Paul Scholes’ so United fans are very familiar with a sending off. But these players never cost their team games, well very rarely anyway. Stupidity and rawness is the answer here, and United need to lose it.

As I round up United’s defensive frailties and, I’m going to give a solution. Now I may not be Sir Alex or Jose Mourinho when it comes to magical transfers. But come on, it’s fair to say a right-back and two centre-halves must arrive. It won’t be possible in January, maybe the rotational defender at most. Fabian Schar, the 22 year old from Basel is a sought after prospect. He would be a great addition as cover. But then it’s time to put your neck on the line and buy the best. Hummels, Boateng, Pique and Chiellini. Four exceptional centre-backs blessed with experience and leadership. So that’s where it’s wrong for United… Very, very wrong. And they have quite the gaping hole to fill.

United need a pair like these two at the back.
United need a pair like these two at the back.

I suspect United will earn European bragging rights once more. 4th or 5th are the possible outcomes for this team. Defensive woes are where they differ from the big guns. Spot the difference…? Terry, Koscielny, Kompany… TYLER BLACKETT. It’s a group effort from the United back four, and injuries aren’t their problem. What they do have on their hands now however, is an uphill struggle. A struggle to maintain their platinum status. We’ll see.

Thanks for reading,

Liam Baldock.


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