Greenhorn or veteran – The defensive choice for Manchester United this season

by Sam Peoples

Last season young Jonny Evans came of age and along with Rio Ferdinand, he formed the heart of a strong United defence that allowed conceded 33 goals in the campaign. Powerful in the air and fast on his feet, Evans showed greatly improved ability to attack long balls sent into his area.

With Nemanja Vidic injured for almost the entire season, Evans was called upon to fill the defensive boots of the best centre back in the world, and under that immense pressure Evans became a top defender. His progression has been a joy to watch and I think we’re at the point where you have to wonder if he can take Rio’s traditional place next to Vidic in the center of United’s defence.

Evans has shown his quality for years with Northern Ireland and United, with amazing comfort and composure from the beginning, a biting tackle and a natural feel for handling aerial battles. 2008-09 saw his first full season with the first team, starting 16 games in the Premier League and six in the Champions League, though he was only 20 years old at the season’s opening. Starting such big games so young is especially impressive for a centre back, a position where a player is generally expected to come into their prime in their late 20s.

That season he helped United to our second best defensive record with only 24 goals conceded, beaten only by the previous season where we let in a meager 22. It was also during this time that he helped Edwin Van Der Sar set a team and world record of 1,131 minutes without conceding a goal in a season.

With Rio Ferdinand at the height of his powers, attacking long ball passes with astounding precision, Evans mostly avoided leaving to back line of the defense. His impressive tackling, shielding and ability to hold off defenders was on show from the beginning, with the kind of composure you only expect from seasoned professionals.

It wasn’t till the 2010-11 season that he was asked to consistently attack long balls sent into the no-man’s land between the defenders and midfield, and there were some growing pains as we conceded 37 goals, something we were happy to overlook as we won a historic 19th league title. Some wondered if he had taken a step backward, but it turned out that the season would prove the making of him, giving him the opportunity to refine his aerial game against top opposition.

Last season, with Ferdinand taking a more conservative approach to defending because of his advancing years, it was Evans who was called upon to attack most of the long balls, and he did so with vast improvement. Where before he had shown hesitation he was now extremely aggressive, and with great success. Much like we’re used to seeing from Vidic, he would sprint from his position and consistently beat attackers to long balls, finding the timing to meet the ball at the top of his leap while using his run to create the momentum that helped him beat his opponents.

Result (goals conceded) Evans Ferdinand  Result (goals conceded)
 Win West Brom(1) West Brom (1) Win
 Win Spurs (0) Bolton (0) Win
 Win Arsenal (2) Stoke (1) Draw
 Win Bolton (0) Norwich (0) Win
 Win Chelsea (1) Liverpool (1) Draw
 Win Norwich (0) City (6) Loss
 Draw Liverpool (1) Sunderland (0) Win
 Loss City (6) Swansea (0) Win
 Win Everton (0) Newcastle (1) Draw
 Win Wolves (1) Aston Villa (0) Win
 Win QPR (0) Wolves (1) Win
 Win Fulham (0) QPR (0) Win
 Win Wigan (0) Newcastle (3) Loss
 Win Bolton (0) Bolton (0) Win
 Win Arsenal (1) Stoke (0) Win
 Win Stoke (0) Chelsea (3) Draw
 Draw Chelsea (3) Liverpool (1) Win
 Win Liverpool (1) Norwich (1) Win
 Win Norwich (1) Spurs (1) Win
 Win Spurs (1) West Brom (0) Win
 Win West Brom (0) Wolves (0) Win
 Win Wolves (0) Fulham (0) Win
 Win Fulham (0) Blackburn (0) Win
 Win Blackburn (0) QPR (0) Win
 Win QPR (0) Wigan (1) Loss
 Loss Wigan (1) Aston Villa (0) Win
 Win Aston Villa (0) Everton (4) Draw
 Draw Everton (4) City (1) Loss
 Win Sunderland (0) Swansea (0) Win
Sunderland (0) Win
W24 D3 L2 (C24) W21 D5 L4 (C26)

Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand – 2011/12 Premier League statistics

Last season Evans played 29 games, during which time we conceded 24 goals, a rate of 0.83 goals conceded per game, which would come to 31 over the course of a season. More strikingly, in those games, we had a record of 24 wins, three draws and two losses. At that rate we would see United gather 98 points in a 38 game season.

Home matches against City and Everton and the game at Stamford Bridge counted for 13 of those goals conceded, only one of which we lost. In the other 26 games he started we conceded only 11 goals. Being part of 24 wins out of 29 is quite impressive, as well as 16 clean sheets.

In comparison, Rio play 30 games last season, during which time we conceded 26 goals at a rate of 0.87 goals conceded per game, which comes to 33 goals conceded over 28 games, very similar to Evans. However, in games where Rio started we won 21, drew 5 and lost 4. This comes to 68 out of 90 possible points, at which rate we’d get 86 points in a 38 game season, which is well below Evans’.

Home games against City and Everton, and away games with Chelsea and Newcastle account, for 16 of the 26 conceded, two of which were losses. In the other 26 games he started we conceded only ten goals. Like Jonny, he was also part of 16 clean sheets. While you could argue that Rio played some more difficult games that Evans didn’t (Away to City and both Newcastle games) he did play both Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea games. At worst, these numbers suggest that Evans can challenge Rio in the future for a starting position.

Many people seem to have missed the rise of Jonny Evans from a top prospect to one of the top young centre backs in the world. With the drama of last season, the return of Paul Scholes, the signing of De Gea, Young and Jones, the epic battle with City and the crushing loss of Nemanja Vidic, it was easy to lose sight of how smoothly Evans fit into the United defence.

On top of all that, United’s stunning attack will always steal the headlines. The fine art of defending is not as beloved as the wonders of attacking football but Evans is sure to continue to gain more notice. After his impressive displays last season there is reason to believe Evans has a chance to become a first choice centre back for United and a staple of the first team for many years. This year, it will be fantastic to watch him battle Rio Ferdinand for the privilege of partnering Nemanja Vidic in the centre of our defence.

You may also like