United’s newly assembled “Manclacticos” squad has been described as ‘unbalanced’ and ‘top heavy’ by pundits and fans alike. The analysis is correct and the diagnosis accurate. United’s glittering array of attacking talent is massively hamstrung by a sub standard defensive platform, made up of brittle players both mentally and physically. Instead of a backline built of bricks and mortar, United’s rearguard is constructed of papier-mache and matchsticks and just like the denizens of a geriatric ward, they shit themselves all too easily.
The main protagonists in this horror show are Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones – an unholy triumvirate of calamitous flapdoodle. Each of them is flawed in their own way. Is there a more nerve wracking sight for United fans than watching Smalling flounder and stumble over possession of the football? He regularly transforms a no danger situation into a panicky mess with a swing of that lousy right foot.
Phil Jones continues to gurn his way from blunder to blunder, throwing his twisted features into tackles he shouldn’t make. At 22, it would be silly to write him off, but the time has to come for the rashness to be replaced by a more calculated process.
Jonny Evans has regressed from a player of promise into a dithering mess of a centre half, his performance at MK Dons, fittingly capping a 12 month tour-de-crap for the Northern Ireland defender. I would say Evans’ standing at United must be at rock bottom, but to stand you need to have two working legs and that leads me to my next point.
The most common and frustrating defect the Three Stooges share is their inability to stay fit. At the time of writing, all three are injured, leaving United desperately shorn of options for their next few fixtures. As disheartening as this must be for Louis Van Gaal, United fans greet news of fresh ailments to Smalling, Evans and Jones with a collective shrug of their shoulders. The apathetic reaction tells you all you need to know and that’s all a bit galling.
The trio’s United career stats in terms of appearances don’t look all that bad on paper:
Jones (2010-14): average 33 games per season
Evans (2006-14): average 29 per season
Smalling (2007-14): average 22 per season
Those numbers seem to reflect a fair enough number of games for young defenders developing behind the outstanding Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. But like all statistics, they don’t tell the full story.
Through vexatious sequences of knocks, pulls, strains and tears, the bungling trinity have accumulated medical records to rival the most unwieldy Hollywood stuntman. Name an injury and they have probably had it. You can put some of them down to bad luck but some footballers are just inherently injury prone, the examples of which are numerous and obvious. It looks as though United have been unlucky enough to be saddled with three in the same position.
The ultimate optimist would say that with consistency of selection through availability Evans and Smalling could still develop into the type of centre halves United need. Evans is still just 26 and Smalling just 24 – they are still a bit away from the traditional peak years for their position and Jones career is still in its infancy; he won’t be 23 until February. In fact over the last two seasons, two of the three have played together as a central pair just 13 times.
But the question remains: do you trust them to stay fit and injury free? I sure don’t and Van Gaal, the ultimate pragmatist might not either.
LVG likes to talk about players fitting his ‘philosophy’ and before the closure of the transfer window, plenty of United’s players seemingly didn’t. I guess saying “you don’t fit my philosophy” is a nicer way of saying “you’re kind of shit” and Van Gaal was happy to turf out Nani, Welbeck, Cleverley, Hernandez and Kagawa who had all been under-performing in one way or another.
Physically delicate centre halves are a bit pointless and don’t really fit anyone’s ‘philosophy’, but if the quality they provided when available for selection was a high enough to level to justify a little patience, then it would be understandable if a manager wanted to keep them around. If your centre halves are injury prone AND calamitous messes when fit – the solution looks pretty obvious and ominous for our stooges.
Van Gaal doesn’t suffer from the same lack of decisiveness as his hesitant predecessor, nor is he distracted by the same over sentimentality and emotional attachment to players that saw Ferguson sometimes keep players around for longer than he should. The Dutchman knows that he isn’t at United for the long haul: he also knows that this is almost certainly his last job in football. He wants to win and win soon.
Van Gaal is moving fast in his attempts to create United’s next great side. It’s going to be an expensively built red and white locomotive which is a unique high speed train in the sense that there will be no room for passengers. Right now, that’s all Evans, Smalling and Jones are. They must prove themselves soon or be left behind.
by Simon Winter