Manchester United’s defence is the third-best in the English Premier League, yet they are on the lookout for a defender to strengthen their title hopes ahead of next season.
Some might find that strange but the truth is that their low goals conceded column this season is a lot to do with goalkeeper David de Gea, whose saves have been crucial; especially during the club’s early-to-mid season run of form.
Such form was promulgated not by cohesive team performances, but by a combination of de Gea’s commandeering influence as well as ruthless opportunism in the final third.
It makes sense then that they should attempt to add a quality centre-back to their ranks in the summer and the man they appear to have chosen is German World Cup-winner Mats Hummels. The Dortmund defender has become renowned for his ball-playing, establishing a reputation as a not-quite-foppish, but certainly very elegant, centre-half.
His willingness and ability to bring the ball out from the back is what sets him apart from most and the consensus seems to be that this makes him a prototypically Louis van Gaal type of defender. The focus on Hummels’ adeptness on the ball partially hides the reality of his drawbacks, however.
While comfortable technically, Hummels physical and athletic traits would lead to discomfort within the confines of the Premier League. The old ‘cold night in Stoke’ analysis may be clichéd, among other things, but it’s worth pointing out that it was Hummels who was unceremoniously brushed off the ball by former team-mate Robert Lewandowski at the weekend, a moment that led to Lewandowski heading home for the only goal of the game as Bayern Munich beat Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion.
It’s not the only time Hummels has struggled against fast and/or strong opponents; over two legs Juventus’ Alvaro Morata terrorised him with his pace and directness, even barging Hummels off the ball on occasion, as Juventus hammered Dortmund 5-1 on aggregate in the Champions League second round.
Hummels, at 26, is at a good time in life to try something new having spent the majority of his professional career with Dortmund, and truthfully you don’t become a mainstay at a top German club, as well as with the Nationalmannschaft, unless you are a very good player. There is, however, an old boxing saying that applies here; that is that styles make fights, and Hummels’ style does not particularly suit the Premier League.
John Terry, Sol Campbell, Nemanja Vidic and Sami Hyypia may be a small sample to highlight, but all four are legends within English football. At no point were any of them celebrated specifically for their distribution of the ball.
The Premier League may not be the best league in the world, and nor may its teams match their European counterparts any more, but individual players do require certain specific qualities should they wish to compete within the league on a weekly basis.
Speaking of Hummels during Dortmund’s loss to Bayern, former Manchester United player Owen Hargreaves told BT Sport
He’s a ball-player but he’s not the quickest…I think he could get exposed (in the Premier League)…I think Man United need a powerful defender…who is very physical and very aggressive, and that is definitely not Hummels.
So Hummels isn’t the ideal candidate to solve Manchester United’s defensive concerns. There are, however, at least three other players the club could, and should, go for instead of the German. All of them are younger, fit both the Premier League’s demands and van Gaal’s system; and they could be signed for cheaper than Hummels’ purported £35 million price tag.
Stefan de Vrij
De Vrij was an integral member of van Gaal’s Dutch team for their successful 2014 World Cup campaign and, as such, one wonders why he wasn’t pursued immediately when van Gaal took over the reigns at Old Trafford. Instead de Vrij joined Lazio, where he as been excellent in an overperforming team that is now on course for Champions League football next season.
De Vrij reads the game well, as is shown through his 3.8 interceptions per game (per Who Scored). He’s decent on the ball, but also strong enough to mix it in the air.
At just 23-years-old and with the versatility to play as part of a back four or three, he would be perfect for van Gaal’s Manchester United.
Greece has produced some fine defensive players in recent years and Manolas is arguably the finest of the lot. Brought in by Roma to replace the outgoing Mehdi Benatia after a strong World Cup showing, he has excelled in Serie A in spite of the team around him crumbling at times.
A strong tackler with good positional sense; rarely is Manolas caught out and, even when he is, he has the pace to recover. Few centre-backs are more accurate passers of the ball than Manolas either, what with his 90% pass success rate.
Capable of mixing the rough with the smooth, he is an ideal candidate for Manchester United in their hunt for a strongman with capability on the ball.
Varane rose to prominence over the last three seasons with Real Madrid while earmarking a starting place in the French national team. Given all of this, it’s quite incredible that he is still just 21-years-old. Nonetheless, Real have a bad habit for selling their better defensive players and, if rumour is anything to go by, Varane could be the latest in line to depart.
He averages less tackles per game than either de Vrij or Manolas, but that may have something to do with Real’s tendency to have more of the ball than their opponents. He does, however, make his fair share of blocks and clearances, and is also a fine passer of the ball.
Varane may not yet be the dominant force his physical characteristics initially suggest, but he has plenty of time to mature in this regard.