The centre-back problem at Manchester United

Louis van Gaal is set to mold his Manchester United team around a 3-4-1-2 formation. For a so-called ‘big team’ in the Premier League this is unchartered territory. The idea of not having 4 defenders is an eccentric prospect for high profile managers. Nonetheless, the Manchester United boss has claimed that this formation is the only way for his philosophy to pay dividends with this group of players in this particular league. Initially this radical change merited scepticism and doubt amongst a healthy portion of Manchester United fans. But after 5 wins, 16 goals and only 4 conceded the method seems to be working.

With that being said, I still have qualms over the current defensive predicament at Manchester United. It was considered weak and fragmented last season; with Evra, Ferdinand and Vidic all gone, how does one assess it now? On paper, it’s a bit of a nightmare. If you look at the strength and depth within the ranks of the supposed ‘title contenders’ the contrast in personnel is frightening when you look at Manchester United in comparison to the likes of Chelsea or Manchester City. Despite the fact that it may seem like a weak link the Manchester United back three have by no means disgraced themselves on the USA tour. Only conceding 4 goals in 5 games don’t necessarily spark great apprehension or doubt. One of those goals was a 60-yard potshot that was entirely Ben Amos’s fault, poor guy.

However, the severe pace of the English game provides a much sterner test for the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who may have looked competent playing in the warm glaze of the lackadaisical American climate, but when the pace of the Premier League gets into full swing, that’s when stats really matter. The 3 other goals conceded by Manchester United does yield strong inference to what kind of defender the club requires. That’s right, all penalties. Albeit the one against Roma was questionable, but it still shows that the team requires a regimental and experienced personality sitting at the back. How many times did United concede a penalty when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were alongside each other? You could probably count the figure on one hand. That isn’t just luck, that’s down to having a calm and composed head when attackers are bearing in on goal. Both defenders have experience and belief in their ability to stay on their feet and make the right decision.

Unfortunately, the current defence cannot boast such mental and technical fortitude. Phil Jones has claimed that he is ‘ready and excited’ to take on the leading centre back role, playing in the middle of a back three. Although he is a wonderful defender, who single handedly takes world-class attackers out of the game with his sheer brutality and verve, Phil Jones doesn’t quite possess that equilibrium to be the main man who dictates proceedings from the back. Rio Ferdinand in his hay-day would have been an ideal candidate for that role.

To put it bluntly, Woodward and co need get it together somewhat. Although the way Vermaelens move to Barcelona panned out was rather embarrassing for Manchester United it did at least show that the club is after a central defender. But with the latter signing for Barcelona, Mats Hummels becoming Borussia Dortmund’s new skipper and Di Vrij moving to Italy suitable targets are beginning to become worryingly scarce. Nonetheless, a centre back should be top priority for the people behind the scenes at Manchester United; I trust that a defender will come in the next 20 days. The type of stalwart that Van Gaal and Woodward should go after must have the following credentials:

– An established player who has experience playing consistently at the highest level

– Somebody who is able to bring the ball out of the defence and into attack in a comfortable manner

– A strong personality; isn’t afraid to shout at people, can withstand unrelenting pressure and keep up with the pace of the Premier League

– Able to play 30+ games a season

– Familiar to playing in the middle of a back line of three

A tall order indeed for Mr. Woodward; but if Manchester United is going to launch any sort of title bid in the upcoming season, the acquiring of a capable centre back is paramount.