For the fourth year in a row, Manchester United will go into the summer transfer window needing to buy at least one centre-back. The problem, arguably, is not so much that the centre-backs they already have or bad, but that they’ve only generally been slightly below the standard that United require.
At the end of the 2013/14 season, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic both left the club after – more or less, and seemingly more more than less – being made to feel like they were no longer welcome. This was a bad move. While Ferdinand was only United’s 5th most used centre-back that year, Vidic was United’s second, only one lot of 90 minutes behind Phil Jones in terms of starting-centre-back usage (24.16 and 23.16 90s). This isn’t even taking into account their performance quality.
There was a defence to the decision, in that Smalling and Jones – back then, dual promising-English-talents at 24 and 22 – were envisioned as Ferdinand-Vidic 2.0 (in terms of the passage of time, if not precisely in terms of improvement). The hope was that they would sort out their consistency issues and push on to be United’s starting centre-back partnership for a decade to come.
United, therefore, didn’t exactly need a starting centre-back to replace Ferdinand or Vidic. A new starter would have to be significantly better than either Smalling or Jones, and more or less be able to instantly adapt to the league. It would have to be a nailed on success. And those are costly, particularly when you’ve just had your worst season within every professional footballer’s living memory. The cost likely wouldn’t be worth the benefit, given that it would delay the much-hoped-for development of this future partnership.
Marcos Rojo was brought in as back-up and United muddled by. In terms of starting centre-back minutes, Smalling and Jones did indeed top United’s most-used list, but only with just over 20 90s each.
Hope for Smalling and Jones was still present and, although United finished 4th and back in the Champions League, they were still not a completely attractive proposition for elite centre-backs to join.
But, in hindsight, if ever there was a time in the past 5 years for United to buy a ready-made starting centre-back it was after this 2014/15 season. Jones was still young enough to be bumped down to number 3, Jonny Evans – not content with being 3rd or 4th choice at 27 years old – would depart for West Brom, and Louis van Gaal seemed happy to play Rojo at left-back (despite him being worse in that position than at centre-back). Hypothetically, the entire centre-back corps could be kept happy with a new regular addition, Rojo as 4th choice being able to pick up minutes at left-back.
On the whole, though, the financial cost of signing a sure-fire hit would likely outweigh the benefits again. And who would go to United in the summer of 2015? Of centre-backs who could be considered to be elite, or close to it, very few have moved clubs around this period. I asked the question on Twitter of the most recent transfer of this type and the amount of answers which came in the early 2010s was telling. Perhaps only Mats Hummels and Toby Alderweireld fit the level required and the time window, and neither would have been certain of being an immediate success within a United side who still looked vulnerable.
That vulnerability was likely a large part of why Van Gaal moved to the height of safe-but-dull football in 2015/16. Jones, after having two successive seasons when he started more than 20 90s at centre-back, managed just 5.88. This was only partially due to injuries, Van Gaal turning to Daley Blind for distribution reasons, and this is a key part of where the once dreamed-of Smalling-Jones duo falls apart.
Not only have neither of the pair progressed as wished in purely defensive terms, but in hindsight much of the Smalling-Ferdinand comparisons may have rested on height and skin tone. Smalling’s on-ball skills may be better than Jones and may have potential to improve, but now at 27 years of age the gap between his current quality in possession and the level needed to accommodate a Smalling-Jones partnership is too large.
In the summer of 2016, though, Blind had emerged as a useable centre-back, Smalling had just come off his best season in a United shirt, and Jones and Rojo were still present as back-up. With transfer strategy targeting elite signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, an elite centre-back signing was even more unlikely than the season before and Eric Bailly was brought in.
An elite centre-back signing may not even have appeared to be needed in 2016. Smalling had struggled when Van Gaal’s side had looked more vulnerable as a whole, but he and Blind had looked – largely – like a passable starting duo. If another starter was needed (based on the previous season’s performance), it was a number 2 who had to be brought in rather than the number 1 who had been required in 2014 and 2015. Bailly was a bit of an unknown to English fans, and wasn’t at an elite level, and so worked as this number 2 signing to fit in alongside Smalling.
However, whereas last season may have been Smalling’s best at United, this one might have been his worst. Hit by injuries and performing poorly when on the pitch, Bailly would have emerged during 2016/17 as United’s number 1 centre-back by default, even if he hadn’t performed as consistently as he has.
United now have a familiar problem. Smalling, the apparent 2nd best centre-back at the club, seems to work less well alongside Bailly than either Jones, Blind, or Rojo, and it’s not as if any of those partnerships are ideal. As a result, Smalling has been relegated by some fans to the ‘sellable’ or even the ‘must sell’ list.
With Smalling, Jones, and Rojo all usable if not ideal, any prospective centre-back signing has to be significantly better than them to justify the expense. If one comes in, one of the current United trio has to leave, and which one does end up leaving might depend on who is the most sellable.
But who is available? United may have some of their aura back under Jose Mourinho, but they may still fail to get Champions League football next season. And, once again, the addition needs to be sure of being better than the options already available, which – given how well the non-Smalling centre-backs have performed alongside Bailly – isn’t a given.
For the fourth year in a row, United have a good depth of 6 and 7/10 centre-backs. The signing of a guaranteed 8/10 would be costly and so, for the fourth year in a row, it should not necessarily be expected.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.
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