A case for defence
Looking back to go forward by Philip Morrissey
When was the last time that you as a United fan could be sure of the make-up of the back five (or combination depending on the system used)? Possibly the 08/09 season when a series of shut-outs meant that Edwin Van Der Saar broke the record for the longest time without conceding a goal. That mid-season period, and a subsequent string of clean sheets towards the end of the season, ensured the title ahead that year. Rio Ferdinand, Nemenja Vidic, Patrice Evra and either Wes Brown or John O’Shea knew each other’s games well and complemented each other. That was the benefit of playing together over an extended period of time.
Since then, that solidity has been eroded. Injuries to key personnel, and declining form attributed to others, have contributed to this. Replacements and back-ups have come in and struggled despite promising much. Playing in the shadow of a more experienced player can motivate some and it can strike fear into others. Teams have seized on this sense of nervousness to come away with results that previously would have been considered unthinkable. Can this purely be the fault of the individuals or can the managers be culpable as well?
David Moyes had the reputation of creating teams that were well organised but the thought of Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero having so much space in which to create damage still wakes up fans in cold sweats. Allowing key players of any team room, without making it difficult for them, will undermine any chance of success. Louis Van Gaal had built his success on a particular system of play that helped his Dutch side to third place at the 2014 World Cup. Unfamiliarity with this style of play, a seemingly mistrust of the players that he had available to him and an almost constant run of injuries meant that the team seemed to be playing deeper to protect the back four. Possession was key but often it seemed to be in the wrong areas of the field.
So where does the team stand now? There have been no major alterations in terms of personnel as of yet. Guillermo Varela has gone out on a season loan to Frankfurt and central defender Eric Bailly has arrived from Villarreal. Other than that (so far) it has been left to the incumbents that have been at the club for the past few years. The general opinion is that fitness depending that Luke Shaw will start at left back and that Matteo Darmian will start at right back. Either Marcus Rojo or Timothy Fosu Mensah will provide back-up to Shaw and Borthwick-Jackson will provide the main back-up to Darmian.
The centre remains an area of confusion though. Many anticipated Phil Jones as partner to Chris Smalling but after a tough season or two and being responsible for at least one of the goals against Dortmund, his future has been cast into doubt. The arrival of Bailly, and the partnership Blind built up last season, further put him under pressure. Mouriniho built his reputation on physically imposing centre-halves but with a certain amount of cunning and craft as well. He has the physique certainly but does he have the smarts?
Whatever combination is used must be allowed to develop an understanding of each other and a proper relationship fostered. The team needs a base to build from or else it is doomed to failure.