We’re now under a month away from the January transfer window and audacious rumours are already circulating the tabloids – in fact, their relentlessness hasn’t really stopped since the summer.
With their need for a star-studded centre-half well-known, Manchester United have been linked to some of Europe’s heaviest hitters and most expensive defensive properties this season, including the likes of Mats Hummels, Diego Godin, Jan Vertonghen and Raphael Varane, and are expected to invest considerably in one come the New Year.
Money is no issue for the free-spending, Gaalactico-inspired Red Devils, but with their price-tags all upwards of £20million, could there be a much cheaper solution right under Louis van Gaal’s nose? Namely, former academy centre-back duo Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair.
The former grabbed van Gaal’s attention during United’s pre-season tour whilst the latter – who Phil Neville claims struggled to even made the academy’s starting Xi during his torrid spell as David Moyes’ right-hand-man – would have unlikely featured this season if the Red Devils had obtained one of their many rumoured centre-back targets during the summer.
Their form this season hardly warrants a list of intricately-linked superlatives and there’s been plenty of naive mistakes along the way – Blackett’s red card against Leicester City for example, in-part trigging the relegation-threatened side’s historic 5-3 comeback. Overall, United have conceded twelve goals in the ten fixtures Blackett, McNair or both have featured, claiming just three clean sheets against Burnley, Crystal Palace and QPR – three of the four lowest scoring teams in the Premier League.
But considering the baptism of fire they’ve been thrown directly into this season, specifically, United’s incredible injury problems, van Gaal’s constant experimentation with back threes and back fours and the lack of any genuine leadership figures in defence, both have performed rather admirably.
Take the 2-1 victory over Arsenal for example – a fixture where both young defenders were thrown into vital roles in an ad hoc 3-5-2 formation. Neither shone particularly, and in truth, the Gunners failed to take advantage of an incredibly inexperienced Red Devils defence, but Blackett and McNair did the simple things well and soaked up enough pressure, despite a lack of support from midfield in early periods of the match, to allow United to score twice against the run of play.
When Kieran Gibbs sliced into his own net, United’s second and the resulting victory felt inevitable, but they wouldn’t have even reached that point in the match without Blackett and McNair fighting tooth and nail, be it a full-blooded challenge or a quarter-inch of stud, to keep the scores level.
Louis van Gaal boasts an incredible record of nurturing young talent; some of the alumni that have debuted under the Dutchman throughout his spells at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich include Patrick Kluivert, Andres Iniesta, Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Clarence Seedorf and Xavi. So imagine the levels of performance Blackett and McNair could reach under the United gaffer, in a more consistent, familiarised and injury-free defence.
I’m not suggesting either should be starting Xi regulars, starting weekly, but both have shown enough potential to deserve a rotational role in the squad. With Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans already at van Gaal’s disposal, that will unlikely continue – at least, not with the same regularity – if United bid big for Hummels and company in the coming transfer window.
That being said, even with further Premier League exposure, neither Blackett nor McNair resolve United’s most fatal flaw in defence – a lack of leadership. Phil Jones could be that figure in a few years’ time, but it speaks volumes that Jonny Evans, at the ripe old age of 26 and with 115 Premier League fixtures under his belt, is by far United’s most experienced option at centre-half currently.
And although van Gaal’s track record with young players is impeccable – the theory being that their youth and passion, in comparison to more senior counterparts, gets them buying into the LVG philosophy considerably quicker – the absence of a Hummels or a Godin, a proven, experienced, top quality centre-back, will stifle Blackett and McNair’s development too.
More advanced positions are often about natural talent, but central defenders need veteran figures to learn from and teach them the dirtier, subliminal tricks of the trade. The likes of Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic would have been ideal, but there’s no point looking back now.
So eventually United will need that proven centre-back, for both short and long-term gains. But the performances of Blackett and McNair, the clear improvement from their debuts and their ability to at least ‘do a job’ at a level that seemed well above them just months ago, has done van Gaal a huge favour.
Rather than his hand being forced in January to equip a centre-back no matter what the cost, Blackett and McNair’s proven worth gives the United boss the opportunity to wait until the summer, where the price and availability of the world’s centre-back elite will become a lot clearer.