Right now, the heart of Manchester United’s defence is an absolute hell hole, a torture lair belonging to whatever might constitute the footballing equivalent of Satan.
That’s not to discredit any individual performances; considering the Red Devils have tested two completely different formations already this season and endured an injury crisis that earlier this month reached double figures, one could even dare to argue that the Carrington club have defended rather admirably on certain occasions. Their nine goals conceded this season is actually exceeded by seven Premier League sides.
But with an imbalanced squad and a new philosophy that demands relentlessness going forward, clearly, if United are to regain their Champions League status this season, defensive reinforcements of a higher quality are a necessity in January.
Fortuitously, a fantastic transfer opportunity has just come Manchester United’s way – Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham’s key defender for the last two seasons and regularly linked to the likes of Barcelona, has just put his White Hart Lane future in doubt by ending contract talks with the north London side on sour terms – no sign on the dotted line.
Having demonstrated their monolithic financial firepower during the summer , and with the requirement for a top quality centre-back now intrinsic, the Red Devils must capitalise by launching a bid for Vertonghen in January. As argued below, in terms of style, experience and calibre, he meets their needs perfectly.
In my opinion, the epicentre of Manchester United’s defence desperately requires two things. First of all, leadership; the fact Johnny Evans, at the ripe old age of 26, is now the most experienced centre-half in United’s squad tells its own story, but the issue is further amplified by Louis van Gaal handing Premier League debuts to three academy centre-backs already this season in Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane and Patrick McNair – Phil Neville claims the latter was struggling to break into the youth team not too long ago. Even summer signing Marcos Rojo is just 24.
Of course, age is just a number, as van Gaal emphatically argued during the summer in regards to his time working with a young Clarence Seedorf at Ajax. But clearly Manchester United are missing the experience, leadership and organisational qualities of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, who both left Old Trafford on bosman moves at the end of last season.
Without the duo, who amassed 755 collective appearances for the Red Devils, United’s backline has ranged from chaotic to capitulated this season, epitomised by a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of MK Dons and a 5-3 defeat to Leicester City. Tellingly, the former champions have claimed just two clean sheets so far this season, against QPR and Burnley – the two lowest scorers in the Premier League.
Secondly, Manchester United need a defender that’s brave and talented enough to play out of the back. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Johnny Evans all struggle in that regard (especially Smalling) and in truth, the Red Devils haven’t been luxury to a centre-back of that category since Rio Ferdinand’s pace begun to exacerbate three or four years ago.
United always remained at the forefront of Premier League trends under Sir Alex Ferguson, but in this case they’re lagging fatally behind. A ball-playing centre-back is crucial to van Gaal’s philosophy too; whether its preserving possession or simply adding even more firepower to a squad that’s already top-heavy going forward, the Red Devils need a defender willing to join the midfield – or better yet, run beyond it.
We saw Ron Vlaar do this to an almost talismanic extent at the World Cup, and one can only assume this style underpinned LVG’s well-documented interest in Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels during the summer, a world-class centre-back so famed for going forward that he’s often compared to Franz Beckenbauer.
Vertonghen may not quite be in Hummels’ company – after all, we’re talking about a Champions League finalist and World Cup winner – but the Belgium international isn’t far behind.
Although performances have been rather subdued over the last twelve months or so, perhaps an inevitable reaction to the frequent changes in roster and management at White Hart Lane, the Tottenham star proved in his debut season that on his day, he’s one of the best centre-halves in the Premier League. A move to Manchester United could make those days considerably more common.
And Vertonghen meets both requisites perfectly – at 27 years of age he’d be the oldest centre-back in United’s squad, and his leadership skills are proven, having served as Ajax captain prior to his north London move.
Likewise, Vertonghen stunned critics with his willingness to get forward during the 2012/13 campaign to bag seven goals in all competitions, the majority of which were from open play, including a goal at Old Trafford. He demonstrated his technical qualities again at the World Cup, averaging one successful dribble, one created chance and two shots per match for Belgium.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Manchester United need to find someone in January who can hit the ground running. Many of their summer acqusitions have adapted well but any signing upon the turn of 2015 won’t have the luxury of pre-season to settle in at Old Trafford.
Foreign imports always come with inevitable risk too, yet Vertonghen has more than proved his compatibility with the pace, power, intensity and quality of the Premier League over the last two seasons. Any transition period compared to the likes of Hummels and Atletico’s Miranda – another top quality centre-back often linked with the Red Devils – would be minimal.
Of course, the stumbling block remains price tag. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is infamous for his reluctance to sell key players to rival Premier League clubs, the most recent example being Chelsea’s ill-fated pursuit of Luka Modric in summer 2011. He waited twelve months and even lowered the Croatian playmaker’s valuation slightly to assure he’d join Real Madrid instead.
United could find themselves in a parallel situation, but with Vertonghen’s future at Spurs now in serious doubt, Levy will be susceptible to persuasion in January. And the difficulties in prizing him away from White Hart Lane, however costly they might prove to be, will surely be outweighed by the vital influence the defender could have on United’s season.