Jonny Evans has always struck me as uninspiring by name and uninspiring by nature, a slender-framed pixel used to decorate the Theatre of Dreams. Is he undervalued or merely one of football’s painfully adequate professionals? Last year, Sir Alex Ferguson hailed the Northern Ireland international as “arguably the best defender in the country,” but was that a laughable suggestion or appropriately laudable?
This may sound like the biggest backhand compliment ever delivered, but Jonny Evans’ greatest asset is his tendency to steer clear of the treatment table. Every other member of Manchester United’s backline has endured a constant stream of injuries, which has allowed Evans to blossom into a competent defender.
However, I am struggling to picture him as the club’s first-choice centre-back beyond the reign of Ferguson. Even now, despite Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s advancing years, they remain the most desirable and resilient partnership. Plus, it’s surely only a matter of time before the likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones fulfil their potential and surpass Evans in the pecking order.
Picture if you will, every imperious central defender in modern football, they all share a lean, robust physique and can be heard all over the pitch. I simply don’t see the same characteristics when I gaze upon Jonny Evans. Perhaps that’s why Ferguson holds him in such high regard, he’s always had a fondness for the shy, discreet individuals that let their football do all the talking.
Before Tuesday’s comfortable 4-0 victory over Wigan, the club had kept just four clean sheets this season and conceded 28 goals in 20 games, more than 11 other clubs in the top flight. Whether you consider this fair or not, such statistics look unfavourably on Jonny Evans and highlight a glaring area of improvement that needs to be addressed if United are to reclaim their Premier League crown.
In the enthralling 4-3 triumph against Newcastle, the major talking point derived from whether Papiss Cisse was offside during the game’s third goal. However, if Evans had been less preoccupied with grappling the Senegalese forward and instead adjusted his position and shuffled his feet, he could have cleared the ball with relative ease. The incident highlighted nothing more than the naivety and poor decision-making that still exists within the defender.
At this point, the United faithful will be pointing frantically at his commendable goal tally, as evidence of his vast improvement and efficiency from set-pieces. However, such mainstream statistics often disguise a below par performance across 90 minutes, as in the case of Patrice Evra this season. Even if you don’t believe this to be the case with Evans, it’s worth pointing out that without his goals this season (at both ends) the club would actually be a point better off in the table.
There was a debate recently surrounding whether Jonny Evans would get a look in at any other table-topping club in the division. If decided purely on ability I would say no, but his capacity to perform at a consistent level while avoiding lengthy injuries is an incredible desirable trait. The likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and even Manchester City could all use him at the moment, or at the very least someone like him.
Perhaps Evans has a future in midfield at Old Trafford, even Ferguson admitted, “We were never quite sure if he was going to be a midfield player or a centre-back.” The move has worked wonders for David Luiz, who shares a similar composure and awareness on the ball. With Michael Carrick creeping into his mid-thirties and question marks still hovering over the future of Darren Fletcher, there could well be a suitable vacancy waiting to be filled.
Jonny Evans celebrates his 25th birthday today and has recently been basking in the glow of a freshly signed contract extension. “I would love to play here throughout the rest of my career,” insists Evans, but considering he’s yet to reach 100 league games for United, has his career even begun yet?