Sometimes plans simply don’t work out.
When Sir Alex Ferguson began to plot his retirement as Manchester United manager, he vowed he would leave his successor with an unparalleled squad of players. The obvious restrictions of Glazernomics were not (publicly at least) considered a barrier. He was determined to hand over a perfect balance of youth and experience; a combination of senior pros, alongside a group of talented, hungry young players who would develop into backbone of United for years to come.
For any number of reasons, it hasn’t happened. David Moyes was hopelessly inept in managing the resources at his disposal but even he emphasised, on numerous occasions, how surprised he was by the lack of quality. Since then, the disintegration of Ferguson’s final squad has been swift.
The senior players, the ones in which Ferguson invested so much faith, have departed more briskly than he would likely have envisaged. Vidic, Ferdinand, and Evra for varying reasons (though all can be traced back to Moyes) all moved on within 12 months of Ferguson’s departure. Giggs also elected to hang up his boots.
At the opposite end of the scale, two of Ferguson’s most high-profile young players, those who he maintained the highest hopes for – Welbeck and Cleverley – have been ushered through the exit door in the last few months. Fabio sneaked off to Cardiff last season while Wilfried Zaha has returned to Crystal Palace on loan. Nani finally performed one last back-flip out of the club in August on a loan move.
The recent transfer window prompted a sorely-needed regeneration of United’s squad but it was also a damning indictment of the players Ferguson left behind. However he perceived his final squad, he wouldn’t have expected it to be so ruthlessly decimated within a year of his retirement. However, it soon became clear that the continual additions to the trophy cabinet in the latter years of his tenure had blinded everyone at the club that the calibre of the squad had deteriorated. Once Ferguson’s powerful influence was withdrawn, the slowly-widening cracks became exposed.
To some degree at least, the club had been winning in spite of the playing squad, rather than because of it.
In that regard, central defence is an area of the pitch that has been brought into sharp focus this season. It was a key area where the young players Ferguson had carefully recruited and developed – Evans, Jones and Smalling – were intended to take up the mantle. There was a hope, belief even, that they would seamlessly plug the Vidic and Ferdinand-shaped holes that had been left in the team.
Even so, it was still absurd, even negligent, that the club did not purchase another centre half in the summer, other than Rojo, a player more used to operating at left-back. It is inexplicable when you consider the club knew Vidic and Ferdinand were leaving in January, allowing several months for planning.
It was an illogical risk and one that continues to look more foolish with each passing week. The abundance of injuries which occur every year, coupled with the absence of a commanding centre-half, has revealed just how disturbingly bare the cupboard is.
Perhaps the continued despair at United’s midfield woes over the last few seasons has obscured the deficiencies that have steadily increased further back on the pitch. Vidic and Ferdinand were a long way past their prime last season but maybe their presence and reputation continued to deflect attention away from a growing area of concern.
For in all honesty, niggling doubts about Jones, Evans and Smalling started to appear over the last year or two, when the immense promise of the three players stalled. The projected development simply never occurred as it was expected to. Injuries have become an enormous and recurring problem. The three players visit the treatment room almost as often as the pitch, and it is worryingly rare when all of them can be considered match-fit at the same time.
In the past, it’s been irritating and occasionally problematic. This season, with United’s hopes resting much more emphatically on their shoulders, it’s been a disaster. Each defender has already suffered an enforced spell on the sidelines. Evans has missed most of the season so far. Smalling and Jones seem unable able to manage three weeks without picking up a knock. Their pitiable fitness record effectively demolishes the chance of establishing a settled defence, a common fixture in most successful sides.
Equally crucially, they have simply not performed at the expected level. For all of their attributes, they have been unable to eradicate the weaknesses in their game. In fairness to Evans, he has previously demonstrated a more consistent run of form than his colleagues, when he formed an excellent partnership with Ferdinand in the second half of the 11/12 season. All of his strengths were on display: his composure, an astute reading of the game and confidence in possession.
Since then, despite continuing to show glimpses of his ability, he has never been able to replicate such an encouraging, prolonged run of form. He also has yet to eliminate the individual errors and poor decision-making that occasionally blight his game, encapsulated in that abject defeat to MK Dons in August. He was returning from injury (of course) but it was still a revealing snapshot of his flaws.
It’s difficult to consider any positive attributes of Chris Smalling after the senseless performance he produced at the Etihad. At United, the coaching staff consider him to possess greater football intelligence than Phil Jones, but it was impossible to spot any last weekend.
That aside, he has pace and height and greater positional sense than some of his team-mates. His chief problem is, like Evans, he is liable to produce at least one individual error a match, allied to the fact he often looks afraid of the ball. His panic in possession is a significant problem, particularly under a manager like Van Gaal who requires his defenders to bring the ball forward from the back. His huge potential when he first joined United seems a distant memory – Smalling has merely become a player who ‘can do a job’, a defender whose performances will be occasionally be good, often satisfactory, but never at a consistently high level.
Jones, however, while exhibiting some of the same limitations – a terrible injury record, lapses of concentration – may still forge a future at Old Trafford. He has every attribute needed with pace, strength, confidence in possession and an utter fearlessness, and a face that provides photoshoppers with endless material.
His ability, and obvious promise, makes him the most frustrating of the three players. His tenacity and courage is also his undoing. He impetuously charges into challenges and pounds after the ball as if every match is his last. It’s admirable, but it causes a recklessness in his performances that can often lead to a mistake, or even worse, an injury. There is, as Sir Alex alluded, an excellent footballer in there. It’s whether he can develop as he should do.
He needs to. They all do. At some point, the club will recognise the need to move on. For a club of United’s stature, there is no room to stand still. If the three players cannot elevate their performances to the level required, they will, sooner or later, be discarded. Van Gaal has already demonstrated he won’t dither like Dave, or be a hostage to sentiment, something that perhaps afflicted Ferguson in the final few seasons. He will, without hesitation, make whatever decision is required, no matter how difficult.
It is probable that United will aim to recruit at least one centre-half in the January transfer window, and maybe even another next summer. It’s clear the time for Jones, Evans and Smalling to prove their credentials to Van Gaal is now.
Equally, to flip that on its head, the threat to their United careers has never been more acute.