Such has been the longevity in Manchester United supporters’ clamours for a perceived world-class central midfielder, the crusade has taken on an almost mythical life of its own.
As the January transfer window draws ever closer, the perennial links to the cream of Europe’s midfield elite are set to be wheeled out for yet another season. Regardless of the prosperity the likes of Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick might enjoy at any given moment within the side, it’s a position that appears to be plagued by continuous transfer speculation.
Although maybe it’s just the box office nature of the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Ganso or Christian Eriksen that makes indulging in the speculation that little more enjoyable, but given the amount of goals Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been leaking this season, you could suggest that the transfer focus might be about to slip a little deeper down the pitch.
Considering the amount of talent that Manchester United have on their books in central defence, calls to bring in one more top class defender are often greeted with an air of derision.
For many fans, they’ve heard it all before. Last year, United endured a lingering critique of their backline, which considering their eventual finish in the Premier League, seemed somewhat unfounded. Bereft of the services of their captain, Nemanja Vidic, for well over half the season, it was still only goal difference that prevented them from lifting a 20th league title.
Indeed, their defensive woes didn’t just stop with the loss of their outstanding central defender, either. Rio Ferdinand endured some of his most polarising form in recent memory, while both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in particular, endured a string of niggling injuries that deflated their positive early-season displays. But even then, United still came within touching distance of winning the league.
It certainly seems strange that given the praise heaped upon the much-vaulted solidity of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott at Manchester City last season, United’s back line came in for such stick. After all, Roberto Mancini’s men conceded only four less goals than Ferguson’s side did during the 2011-12 term. Hardly a huge gulf in the class.
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But while Manchester United’s central defensive weaknesses aren’t anywhere near as crippling as many would like you to think, by the standards of the club and especially by the standards of past backlines, there’s more than a touch of room for improvement. Conceding only a few goals less than the eventual champions seems like a fair achievement, but that was ultimately the difference between first and second. Second best isn’t good enough and whereas Ferguson has strived to add more goals to this team, the status quo remains at centre back.
And if United were looking to regain the fiercest defensive reputation in the land this season, they’re certainly going a strange way about it. Despite sitting six points clear, the Red Devils have already shipped a staggering 23 goals this season – a defensive record poorer than only Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League’s top 11.
Many will quite rightly point to the fact that while City have conceded nine less goals, they still sit six points adrift of United in second place and this ‘you score one, we’ll score two’ philosophy is all very well – but it has its limit.
It’s easy to pick on Manchester United’s centre halves and the whole team must collectively take responsibility for stemming the flow of goals. Patrice Evra and Rafael have hardly covered themselves in glory either, defensively. But as hard as it is to imagine at the moment, if the goals do start drying up at the other end, then Fergie’s men might find themselves with a problem.
The issue here is that the current injury crisis at the back earlier on this term, which saw Michael Carrick eventually drop back into defence, is perceived to be something along the lines of a freak, one-off event. But the fact is that while their foundations at the back aren’t quite built on sand, there are real cracks that are beginning to show.
Rio Ferdinand is now 34 years old. While he remains an astute performer, he cannot be relied on to play 38 league games in a season. Last season saw a marked improvement on his injury issues, but they aren’t going to get any better.
Nemanja Vidic is a world-class centre half, but following one major set back already this season after major knee ligament damage, we’re yet to really see how he’ll cope. It’s dangerous speculating upon any possible after-effects, but after lasting five games before a further knee issue, how he deals with his impending comeback will go a long way to allaying lingering long-term fitness worries.
The fit again pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are superb talents, but although fitness issues haven’t been their fault, they can’t afford another season besieged by niggling injuries. United need solidity and they need a consistent central defensive pairing.
Jonny Evans has been their most consistent defender over the last 12 months and the Ulsterman’s more than proved himself at this level. Although is he good enough to offer the first team foundations to fight for both domestic and European honours each season? It’s a difficult one to answer.
Manchester United have been plagued by bad luck at centre back and while the tinkering between the posts hasn’t helped, Sir Alex Ferguson cannot be blamed for the ever-changing make up of his central defensive partnership. But injury, lack of form, bad luck or otherwise, United can’t afford to trudge on without a steady and consistent foundation for much longer.