Maybe it didn’t sink in until Monday’s announcement confirming Patrice Evra will be leaving United to join Serie A champions Juventus, but United have suddenly lost three club legends, and defensive stalwarts from the back four in the blink of an eye. With the new Premier League season now only a few weeks away and the departure of Evra, Ferdinand and Vidic now cemented, I can only echo Bryan Robson’s recent comments that a top class centre-back must now be the priority in the transfer market.
With Woodward departing the pre-season tour of the States early, presumably to conduct business, most United fans would hope that at least one more marquee signing is imminent. Evra’s departure for Juventus will only heighten speculation of a move for Vidal in the opposite direction, but it really must be the centre-back position that United should focus on.
Nobody can argue that Vidic, Ferdinand or Evra have been in sparkling form over the past 18 months, but last season Vidic and Ferdinand still produced more clean sheets than any other central defensive combination in the league for United. And let’s not forget Evra gave us the only real memorable moment of the season at Bayern Munich when he fired that shot in to briefly give us the lead. With 16 Premier League titles between them, it isn’t going to be easy to find players with the same level of experience, composure and knowhow.
The talk amongst supporters though, is that it is the right time for the trio to hang up their boots. But I cannot help think that the significance of all three leaving at once has been somewhat underestimated. Luke Shaw is a clear replacement for Evra, but if he gets injured, then what? And the current centre-back situation looks very precarious when examined closely. Can we really rely on Jones, Evans and Smalling to see us through the season safely? Evans has undoubted ability, but the way things are going he could soon rival Darren Anderton for the rightful owner of the nickname ‘sick note’. Jones isn’t without injury problems either, and I would doubt his genuine quality as a centre-half anyway. What he may have in commitment and versatility, he definitely lacks in composure and nous. Many would file Smalling in the Jones category too. Michael Keane looks a solid talent, but has no real experience, and with Cardiff sniffing around it seems far from certain he will stay. The current back-up to Jones, Evans and Smalling is very sparse and needs urgent attention, and more attention than the midfield.
So who is available that could fill the void left by Rio and Vidic at the heart of the defence? When Jaap Stam left in 2001 Laurent Blanc stepped effortlessly into the mould, and I can’t help think that it is someone in this vein that is needed. A calm head who can read the game, organise and lead, but whose legs haven’t totally gone. United have been linked with Vermaelen, de Vrij, Hummels and Vlaar to name but a few in the usual post World Cup transfer frenzy. It’s hard to make a huge call on these players based on a World Cup alone. The sample size is so small and judgement is often skewed. With Vermaelen at least we know he has been a solid performer for Arsenal for 5 years, and he has leadership ability. When you consider everyone’s favourite comedy defender David Luiz is being sold for £50 million, getting the Arsenal captain for £10 million would seem good business.
Champions League qualification has to be the bare minimum for Louis Van Gaal this season. With the acquisition of Ander Herrera in midfield, and a plethora of top class attacking players already at his disposal, it now must be the centre-back position he strengthens to ensure this happens.