At the weekend, Phil Jones spoke publicly of his hope that he and Chris Smalling would become Manchester United’s new central defensive partnership from next season onwards. But are the young England pair really ready for the responsibility?
With Nemanja Vidic departing to Inter Milan in the summer and Rio Ferdinand unlikely to be offered a contract beyond the end of the current campaign, David Moyes has a void at the heart of his defence that will need to be addressed. Although United have primarily been linked with midfielders in the rumour mill, a new central defender is also believed to be a priority.
Although Jones would welcome the competition, he believes that Moyes should turn to the young England duo. The former Blackburn Rovers player stated “I’ve played with Chris for three or four years in the England Under-21s and also United, and we have a really good understanding.” Recognising the pair’s relative inexperience, Jones added “we complement each other well and when you look at other central-defender partnerships and how they grow and build, they get better by playing together.” The pair cost United approximately £26 million and Sir Alex Ferguson likely intended for the two to form the club’s new central defensive partnership.
Based on the successful blueprint of Ferdinand and Vidic, Jones and Smalling do seem to possess the required attributes to complement one another. While Jones has proven himself capable of bringing the ball out of defence like the former England captain, Smalling has recently begun to command a greater authority in the air.
But the partnership is not ready yet.
With United floundering domestically, Moyes is not in the position to currently grant the Jones-Smalling partnership the necessary time to develop. As the banner flown over Old Trafford in the recent fixture against Aston Villa, a noticeable proportion of the club’s faithful have grown restless with the “Chosen One”. The Red Devils cannot risk extending their absence from the Champions League which means Moyes has to spend big in the summer.
Jones’ comments also overlook the role of Jonny Evans. A quick search on fan forums reveals a strong debate over which of the three is better right now. Jones may like to partner Smalling but there is no guarantee that either would be first choice, and Moyes may be tempted to rely upon Evans’ greater experience on certain occasions.
The fact that the three of them all have such a poor injury record also needs to be considered. With Moyes unlikely to get a full season out of any of the trio, it would be foolish for him to not replace at least one of Ferdinand and Vidic.
Jones and Smalling may have been purchased with the intention of becoming the club’s central pairing, but up until now the duo have occupied a number of positions. Both have been asked to fill in at full back fairly frequently whilst the former has also adopted a midfield role at times.
Whilst this will prove beneficial for the players’ long term footballing development, it doesn’t aid their immediate case to become Moyes’ first choice pairing. Neither of them have played enough times in the heart of defence to have established themselves as the preferred partnership, especially at a club like United. Some will argue that Jones and Smalling should be played to allow them to learn and improve together and in an ideal world, this would be the best solution. But with the pressure continuing to mount on the manager, the “Chosen One” simply cannot afford the pair the necessary time.
With Patrice Evra potentially leaving too, United could be starved of genuine experience at the back unless Moyes makes a move in the transfer window. Rafael has developed immeasurably but still at times displays a naivety with impetuous challenges whilst Alexander Buttner has only been used sparingly thus far. Whilst Alan Hansen’s infamous “you can’t wing anything with kids” comment will not be repeated here, United will likely require an experienced and commanding presence at the heart of their defence to at least ensure their return to the top four.
David De Gea has improved significantly since joining the club but still does not possess the authority to effectively co-ordinate those in front of him. In Ferdinand and Vidic’s absence, United essentially need to find somebody to lead from the back.
This is why as well as the likes of Ilkay Gundogan and Toni Kroos, Moyes has been linked with a number of experienced central defenders. Dante and Mats Hummels may seem unrealistic targets but a player of a similar calibre is required at Old Trafford.
In an ideal world, the partnership of Jones and Smalling would be allowed the time to develop and prove themselves as United’s long term central pairing. But given the club’s current predicament, Moyes cannot afford to rely on them just yet.