Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Who will United's next centre-back be?

In a season of questions, there is one certainty: Manchester United’s annus horibilis will conclude with the departure of club stalwarts Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The captain has signed a deal to move to Internazionale; while Ferdinand has rarely appeared this term and when he has, the numbers have not been kind.

Their partnership has underpinned nearly a decade of success at Old Trafford.

You'd win bets in 2011 saying Lindegaard
would outlast his fellow photo-mates at United.
While Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have been three of David Moyes’ most reliable players, each has struggled with injuries this season and has a history of doing so. It is dubious if two of those three guys, appreciable as they are, will coalesce to form the next great United wall.

Each player has absolute strengths and weaknesses. Evans is a throwback to the lanky British centre-backs of the mid-eighties, a player born to defend who seems to be just about coming into his own at Old Trafford. Jones is a frenetic kinesis, perhaps a player without a position and still learning what it takes to be truly elite. Smalling is more suited to carrying the ball out from the back, and like Jones, can swing to right-back if required*.

Each is a good player, true enough – but will any of them be great? Jones has the most hope in this regard, but there are grave doubts as to whether these three have the requisite personality to drag a defense along in their wake. Unless this force of will rapidly becomes apparent, United will be in the market for a defender this summer.

Rumours have placed David Moyes, Ed Woodward and any number of United scouts at various arenas around Europe in attempts to find the next great United centre-back. The most featured names include Frenchman Eliaquim Mangala of Porto and German youngster Matthias Ginter, who is performing well at relegation-threatened Freiburg. Alarmingly, Stefan Savic has also been linked, while suggestions that Mats Hummels would abandon Borussia Dortmund for Manchester are pure fancy.

I’m taking the liberty here of adding a personal favourite to the investigatory list: Steven Caulker, of Cardiff City. Caulker is young, British, athletic and poised. While his club hasn’t had the greatest of campaigns (understatement alert), Caulker has only solidified his reputation as one of the better young central defenders in the Premiership; one who actually has the tools to improve his game and a team around him.

It may not be as simple as three-into-one. Each of these players has significant drawbacks that limits their immediate usefulness to the Moyesian Manchester.

The fee for Mangala is likely to approach scandalous amidst interest from practically everyone, while little is known as to his mental makeup. Ginter – while apparently honoured to be linked United – is still something of an unknown quantity – a mix of marginally-impressive stats and an impressive junior record. The German may be more accessible, but would he necessarily be a better fit for the United back line? He bears impressive size for a centre-back, but at 20 would need to have remarkable self-assuredness to help turn around a listing club whose headspace – rather than talent – is under question.

Caulker has experience in such conditions, as captain of a struggling outfit. However he has shown only spurts of an off-pitch ability to galvanise his comrades. Much of this can be attributed to the curious antics of Cardiff City’s owner, but if United are looking for an emotional catalyst, Caulker may not be the guy. He boasts Premiership experience, a nice eye for a pass and looks good in uniform (you can’t teach that) – but if a relatively-rudderless United is searching for leadership, it is questionable that Caulker can provide.

If the three most obvious options aren’t able to totally fill the criteria, then it may be United’s choice to go with the best prospect and hope a summer away from Carrington may be a tonic. It may also allow for the stink that has enveloped the United sheds to disappear, rather than be covered over by the Febreze of a Juan Mata signing, or lofty sponsorship deal.

On paper, a centre-back is paramount as David Moyes begins to shred the remnants of Sir Alex Ferguson’s once-great team. But none has really stood out as the outstanding candidate. This is Moyes’ challenge– not the choice of why or if to rebuild, but how.

*It must be said that this is accomplished with varying degrees of success.

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