Manchester United dispatched with Wigan at home at the weekend with a resounding 4-0 victory, but the biggest talking point to come out of the match was the debut performance of Dutch left-back Alexander Buttner, as he went on to score one and set up another before earning himself the man-of-the-match award. Simply put, will Patrice Evra be able to keep his place in the side after the emergence of a genuine and serious rival for his position?
The club were linked all summer with Everton full-back Leighton Baines but were reportedly put off by the England international’s price-tag, which was north of the £10m that they were willing to pay. When you consider that the club moved for Robin van Persie shortly afterwards for £24m, it left them with little in the bank to bring in another defender, and they surprisingly swooped for one-time Southampton transfer target Alexander Buttner, signing him from Vitesse Arnhem for a fee of £4m.
The club’s head scout in Holland, Ed van Stijn revealed shortly after the move was completed, though: “Every season (United) ask all European scouts for a list of players. They ask you to create a top five of the best players in the league for every position. I had Buttner at number three or four on my list.”
It’s fair to say that this created some undue pressure on the 23-year-old’s first appearance at the club, but he was exceptional against Wigan, even if he was at fault for seven turnovers of possession, which were conceded because of a poor first touch – a record which is currently the most by any player in a single game this season.
Ferguson first aired in public last week that he was considering resting Evra for the game against Wigan, but his words were laced with caution about what may soon become a more permanent switch: “We have to protect the future, that is sensible. Evra is 31 and Alex comes to challenge that position. But nobody has played more games than Evra over the last five years. He has played with injuries – he has guts. He has been up and down that touchline for five years. It’s 240 games he has played. Patrice has been an absolute soldier.”
Of course, it didn’t help the Frenchman’s case that he delivered another shoddy performance for France in their World Cup qualifier against Belarus and the left-back hasn’t been at his best for nearly 18 months now and the slump has alarmingly become the norm. The main cause for concern has been Evra’s positioning and judgement, which have completely left him; aspects which are supposed to improve with age and experience.
The fact that the club conceded five goals in their opening three league games only served to help confirm Ferguson’s suspicions that his defence was fragile, with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both still on the treatment table. While the performance against Everton on the opening day may have been understandable to an extent, given that Michael Carrick had to start at centre-half, the manner in which they let both Fulham and Southampton back into the game has brought forward the need for a shake up.
The main issue concerning Evra is his age, he will be 32 at the end of this season and this could be his final as a guaranteed regular in the side. Buttner is still raw and will take time to adjust, but the return of Fabio, who for my money looks a more rounded player than Buttner at the moment, is also worth considering as we look further down the line.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest managerial strength is his ruthlessness; he simply knows when to cut his losses on a player, despite all of their years of service. Evra is one of the senior members of the squad, is often vice-captain and his trophy haul of four Premier League titles and one Champions League triumph do earn him a degree of leniency, but even then, it can only last so long.
Had the club been able to afford Baines in the summer, there’s no doubt in my mind that we would have seen Evra become the deputy and relinquish his first-team place. Nevertheless, despite his troubles, Ferguson will remain loyal to Evra for the time being, knowing that he has an enthusiastic understudy capable of coming in and performing.
Tne quality of the opposition will be taken into account and Ferguson will know that when it comes to the big crunch games, that he will likely plump for Evra over Buttner, but the first seeds of doubt may have been sown in his mind by how quickly the Dutchman settled into the side. It won’t be enough to shift Evra just yet, but it’s certainly a start.
Not since Gabriel Heinze was at Old Trafford has Evra faced this sort of challenge to his first-team starting berth and his chronic lack of form in recent times has prompted his manager to bring in an alternative this summer. You suspect that Ferguson will continue to act out of loyalty towards Evra for the time being, but that even this currency is in danger of becoming spent, particularly with the emergence of a new rival within the ranks.
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