If Michael Carrick steps into the breach at centre-back again this weekend, for many, it’ll simply represent another short-term fix to a temporary problem at Manchester United. The crux of supporters worries, it appears, remains transfixed on plugging the hole that Paul Scholes will eventually leave.
But whilst the one-time retiree offers the more pressing issue for Sir Alex Ferguson, it could be that events at the centre of defense that demand an equal amount of concern for those at Old Trafford. Things aren’t necessarily as rosy as they seem.
Manchester United’s current injury crisis at the heart of defense isn’t the first time they’ve encountered such an issue and it definitely won’t be the last time either. From time to time, all teams undergo an excessive shortage in personnel within a certain part of the team, and Fergie’s defensive headache is no different. The loss of Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling simultaneously doesn’t constitute the need for a knee-jerk reaction.
And the installment of Michael Carrick at centre-half for the trip to Everton was more a move of necessity than one of particular choice. Carrick has the sort of skillset that suggests he may have got away with doing a Franco Baresi impression at the back for United, although putting it into practice on Monday had a very different outcome indeed. His marking for Marouane Fellaini’s winner was poor but the ex-Tottenham man isn’t a central defender and he shouldn’t be playing here.
Quite whether the touted move of Patrice Evra to the role of emergency centre-half for the Fulham game will pay Fergie any better results is questionable, but these are the cards they’ve been dealt to play. The question is, can anything have been done to prevent it and how likely is it to happen again?
Exhibit A brings us to the case of one Rio Gavin Ferdinand. Esteemed defensive general, 81 England caps and five Premier League titles for Manchester United. As it stands, he constitutes one half of Ferguson’s first choice defensive partnership alongside Nemanja Vidic and when the two are at their zenith, it’s relatively difficult to argue with that notion. Except getting them both playing at their peak isn’t quite such an easy task anymore.
It’s important to note that it’s unfair to judge Vidic’s otherwise impressive fitness record on a one-off cruciate ligament injury. Not all players return the same, but the signs look encouraging for the Serbian so far. But it is Ferdinand who appears to be the more worrying bet. A long standing back problem has already been credited with causing a number of associated niggling problems. Even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted in May that the defender would be unable to cope with the rigors of international football, claiming that: “You play something like a game every four days. Rio Ferdinand couldn’t do that.”
Whilst sitting out a European Championships is one thing, the unrelenting physical nature of the Premier League will ask tougher questions of Ferdinand. The busy Christmas fixture list isn’t a million miles off the sort of schedule tournament football throws up. Is it really good enough that a team looking to challenge for the sort of honours United are, have a first-choice defensive partnership that is bound to the fluctuations of fitness and injury?
Ferdinand’s form last season wasn’t perhaps anywhere near as bad as what some liked to make out, but he started to look far more mortal last season than he has done before for United. A back four is built on consistency and you need to look no further than the sort of paradox that Ledley King brought to the Tottenham Hotspur defence to get a gauge of the issues that comes with a yo-yoing defender.
Whenever King was in the Spurs team, the defensive unit played infinitely better than without him. But the flip-side of this was the next game, or the game after, where a replacement would have to come in to cover for his chronic injury. Asking another centre-half to be prepared to play every other weekend isn’t easy and the consequent lack of game time and consistency, never allowed Spurs to maintain an established back-four. No one is saying that Ferdinand is guaranteed to suffer such a season this term and his injury problems certainly aren’t on the same plateau as what King’s were. But the problems are still relatable.
A lot of hope resides for both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. But, maintaining either can stay fit long enough; they are going to have to be backed in the United centre of defence sooner rather than later. Both have made a slight array of errors when they’ve been in the team, but that’s all part of the maturing process. The only way that can be eradicated is through long, hard game-time. Being plugged in and out between right-back and centre-back isn’t helping their development either. Young players are versatile and they’re both adept at playing either role but for the good of both the players and the team, a more solid role is surely likely to pay dividends.
Sir Alex Ferguson described Jonny Evans as the best defender in the country back in April but whilst the Ulsterman has come a long way since his now infamous horror show during West Ham’s 4-0 Carling Cup win in 2010, it certainly felt like an excessive compliment to say the least. Ironically, it was his partnership with Ferdinand in the light of Vidic’s absence last season that saw him draw such plaudits from his manager. But it is ultimately Ferdinand whom he must be looking to displace within this United team.
You can make something of an innocent until proven guilty case for Ferdinand this season. It is unfair to pan a player on the premise he will live up to a suspect injury record and that his form will slip away with age. He had a decent season last term and was ultimately part of a centre-half pairing that lost the league title on goal difference.
But if United want one of their pretenders to Ferdinand’s throne to succeed, they need to throw their weight behind whoever they deem to be the favoured candidate. Ferdinand is still set to be out for a number of weeks. If either the imminently returning Jones or Evans step up the plate alongside Vidic, they shouldn’t be shunted back out the team for when Rio makes his comeback. If they’re holding their own on form alone, than they must stay there.
Only time will tell how United’s back four stands up to the coming challenges the new season will throw at them. Although strong foundations are built on a bedrock of stability in a back four. Whatever the solution may be, it has to be one that sticks.
How do you see the future of Manchester United’s central defence developing? Can Ferdinand go on for longer or is it time for someone else to step up to the plate? Tell me what you’d do on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and tweet me your line-ups.