With Manchester United’s summer expenditure having been fairly large for a second summer in a row, Louis van Gaal’s transfer policy has been called into question by both Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, with both rival managers suggesting that United (amongst others) are trying to “buy” the Premier League title.
A lot of problems have been fixed with the players who have come to Old Trafford, with central midfield now looking its strongest for a long time and Memphis Depay providing some much needed aggression and direct-play up front. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin are exactly what Van Gaal and co were looking for in the middle of the park, but a question still remains over the defence – is it good enough to mount a realistic title challenge?
The right-back and left-back areas are fairly well-covered, with Matteo Darmian, Antonio Valencia and Guillermo Varela available on one side, whilst Luke Shaw is first choice on the other, with Marcos Rojo more than capable of playing there too. Ashley Young has shown on a few occasions that he is a very decent left wing-back when needed further back.
The real question is more about the central spots, where the current pick of players are Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett. The first three names in the list, for now at least, are the ones who I feel should be the only candidates for starting every game. I want Evans to leave the club – his spitting incident with Papiss Demba Cisse was one wrong-doing too much from him, after strings upon strings of mistakes at the back.
I was formerly one of Evans’ fiercest advocates, and even went as far as to say a few seasons ago that he could match Vincent Kompany as the best centre-back in the league. Both are now a shadow of their former selves and young players such as John Stones quite frankly make Evans look like a League One centre-back. He won’t provide us with the solidarity needed to fight for four trophies in 2015-16.
Nowadays, I’ve turned my support to Chris Smalling. Being completely honest, he’s a future club captain and should be playing every game he can manage, for club and country. Fans of rival clubs won’t notice as they don’t see him playing week in, week out, but the last year or so has been brilliant in terms of his development. Working under Louis van Gaal has done Chris massive favours in terms of his concentration and awareness, and he is turning into a very impressive ball-playing centre back. There were a number of times last season that he carried the ball out of defence and deep into the opposition half by himself, which meant he was finding the likes of Juan Mata with his passes, instead of the lamented passing it back to the goalkeeper. Watch him closely this season – you won’t be disappointed.
Smalling has established himself as a clear first choice in my eyes – and I thought we’d see a simple case of bringing in someone like Ramos or Otamendi to partner him. This is where the questions arise. Have United failed to prepare, hence preparing to fail?
Louis van Gaal has suggested that instead of investing in a new centre-back, he can simply drop Daley Blind into that spot. Will this be enough?
The manager loves players like Smalling – centre-backs who are comfortable with the ball at their feet. Blind fits this role wonderfully, as he is naturally a defensive midfielder with an eye for a pass, and has also impressed at left-back in his time with the Netherlands and United. He played as a left wing-back for Louis van Gaal at the 2014 World Cup, prior to his transfer to United to join van Gaal’s new project with the Red Devils.
He has many of the characteristics required to succeed at centre-back, being a good tackler and a very accomplished interceptor of the ball – however he also lacks two important traits – height and speed. He is just 5ft 11in, which brings concerns over aerial duels with players such as Romelu Lukaku or Christian Benteke, who aren’t the smallest of players to say the least! Alongside this, Blind doesn’t exactly bring United the pace which names such as Rio Ferdinand did in the past. With opponents such as Aguero, Sterling and Hazard to worry about, Blind at centre-back may not make for pleasant viewing.
However, I do think United are prepared for a title challenge with their current defence – Blind shouldn’t be first choice – it’s likely that once Marcos Rojo is back to full fitness following his summer at Copa America, he’ll occupy the left centre-back role; if he’s good enough for a strong Argentina side, he’s good enough for United.