Saturday’s inclusion of Daley Blind at the heart of defence confirmed what we’ve known about Manchester United for some time – they need another option at centre-half.
Indeed, although the Red Devils have plenty of depth in Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and now the Netherlands international as well, none are what you’d describe as part of the world’s centre-back elite, capable of rivaling the likes of Chelsea’s John Terry, Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny or Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany.
Of course, this is nothing new to United fans. Their club has been linked with star-studded centre-back targets for much of the summer. The only problem, however, is that with just three weeks of the transfer window remaining, the pool of defenders who fit the bill is getting ever-smaller.
The Old Trafford outfit have already been snubbed by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels this summer – so who’s still left on the market? Football Fancast takes a look.
Javi Martinez is by no means a centre-back exclusively, having earned his €40million move to Bayern Munich in summer 2012 by impressing as Athletic Bilbao’s long-serving midfield enforcer and also enjoyed his best season to date for the Bavarians in a similar capacity – proving a pivotal, brutish influence as they claimed the 2013 Champions League title.
But measuring in at 6 foot 3 and famed for his aggressive brand of defending, the 26 year-old certainly possess the requisites to play at the heart of defence long-term, which is why he’s often been shoehorned into that role for club and country.
Louis van Gaal loves his ‘multifunctional footballers’ and the positionally versatile Spain international is certainly one of them. Likewise, a ball-playing defender is the Old Trafford gaffer’s preferred mould; as a converted midfielder with all the technical quality you’d expect from a Spaniard playing in a Pep Guardiola side, Martinez falls into that category as well.
Arsenal tried to prize him away from the Allianz Arena last summer but Manchester United might have better luck this time around. Having missed almost the entirety of last season through injury, Martinez now has to battle a star-studded defence and midfield to reclaim his place in the starting Xi.
Jan Vertonghen has never quite rekindled the scintillating form of his debut Premier League campaign, but on his day the Belgium international is still one of the best centre-halves in the division.
And his proven pedigree in the English top flight, now boasting three campaigns with Tottenham Hotspur, is a huge advantage compared to some of the other names on this list yet to test themselves in the Premier League.
Much like Javi Martinez, the 28 year-old meets LVG’s preferred types of ‘multifunctional footballer’ and playmaking centre-half, having been deployed as a left-back and a defensive midfielder during his spells with Ajax (surely another plus for the United boss) and the Belgium national team, and always demonstrated quality and confidence in possession.
Are Tottenham willing to part with him this summer? Probably not. Especially to another Premier League club, in typical Daniel Levy style. But Vertonghen rejected a contract extension at the start of last season and with only two years left on his current deal, a sizeable bid could force Spurs to sell.
Arguably a signing Manchester United should have made last summer, Stefan De Vrij flourished under Louis van Gaal’s leadership at the 2014 World Cup but the former Netherlands boss stood idly by as the prodigious defender joined Lazio in an €8.5million deal immediately after the tournament.
The 23 year-old averaged 2.9 tackles, 3.6 interceptions, 2.6 successful aerial duels and 7.4 clearances per match at Brazil 2014 and carried that form into his inaugural campaign at Stadio Olympico, making 30 appearances as Le Acquile secured a third-place finish.
What stands out most about De Vrij is that he’s an incredibly natural defender and a fantastic reader of the game, demonstrated by the above interceptions statistic that he almost matched (a slight drop to 3.4) in Serie A last season.
If there’s one criticism, it’s that he probably lacks the level of experience and leadership Manchester United need at the heart of their backline. Furthermore, Lazio are unsurprisingly reluctant to sell after signing De Vrij just twelve months ago.
But the Louis van Gaal connection, in addition to the seemingly bottomless pot of cash the Red Devils have to spend this summer, could be enough to force through a deal.
There probably isn’t a more sought-after defender in the Premier League at the minute than Everton’s John Stones, with Chelsea, Manchester City and United all linked to his signature over the last few months.
It’s no great surprise; the former Barnsley youngster’s early form for the Toffees saw him nominated for the 2014 Golden Boy award and earn a place on the stand-by list for England’s World cup squad, as he tore up Premier League opposition with his fleeting runs from the heart of defence.
Equally important as his potential to Manchester United is the 21 year-old’s style of play. His agility, turn of pace and confidence on the ball is exceptionally rare for a centre-half – especially an English one – which has earned him comparisons to a young Rio Ferdinand.
Defensively, the 6 foot 2 centre-half appears to be improving by the game and he’s blessed with that all-important knack of attacking the ball when it truly matters, last season averaging over one successful block per match.
Like De Vrij, he doesn’t offer the experience Manchester United’s defence desperately craves. But in terms of young defenders currently plying their trade inn Europe, he’s as safe a long-term investment as any.
Acquiring him this summer, however, will require a masterstroke from the Red Devils in the transfer market. Chelsea are firmly the front-runners in the race for the England international, with two bids lodged already and a third on its way, whilst the Toffees maintain he’s not for sale.
He may cost Manchester United an arm and a leg – or £35million to be precise – but in my opinion Nicolas Otamendi is probably the only genuinely top class centre-back still on the market this summer.
The Argentina international may not have proved he’s in company with Hummels, Ramos et al. just yet but he was nothing short of phenomenal for Valencia last season, averaging a near incredible 2.9 tackles, 3.1 interceptions, 7.3 clearances and 3.5 successful aerial duels per match whilst netting six times in 31 La Liga outings. That equates to almost 17 defensive actions per match.
It adds to the 26 year-old’s preceding reputation from his spell at FC Porto, where he helped the Dragons claim three consecutive Primeira Liga titles and the 2011 Europa League title, and cements his standing as a hugely talented stopper with domineering athleticism.
Otamendi seems more than ready to move on after his captivating campaign at the Mestalla and is attainable through a £35million release clause. The lingering doubt, however, is that if Louis van Gaal was that interested, he would have activated it already.