Recently, Manchester United legend Gary Neville has claimed that he still has great hopes that ‘the penny will drop’ with centre backs Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones; indicating his belief that the trio all have the potential to make an impact at the club for years to come.
However, with United having made the second most defensive errors leading to chances in the Premier League this season, and with a combined injury record that would make Joe Cole blush, the majority of the Old Trafford faithful still have major question marks over their three longest serving centre backs.
These doubts have been further allayed with the strong rumours linking United to Valencia centre back Nicolas Otamendi in January.
Even without Louis van Gaal reinforcing his back line in January, it seems almost certain that at least one established centre back will be signed by United in the summer. In the light of this, here is an assessment of these players’ Old Trafford futures.
Manchester United appearances: 193
At 27, Jonny Evans is the oldest of the three centre backs in question. It was therefore expected by many fans that he would be the one to fill the void left by the departing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, particularly after a strong pre-season and being given captaincy in the Capital One Cup.
However, out of the three defenders, it is Evans who has regressed the most under Van Gaal.
Evans has always been on the more cultured end of the centre back spectrum. He relies on his strong positioning and anticipation of play, as opposed to his physical prowess, to stop opposition attacks and one of his greatest strengths was always his ability to play the ball out of defence.
However, this attribute has completely deserted him this season and he is looking increasingly shaky on the ball, thereby forcing Manchester United’s midfield to play deeper than preferred when he is on the field.
Although it would be fair to say that Evans has done enough in the past to allow him the benefit of the doubt that his recent decrease in composure on the ball is due to a lack of confidence, possibly caused by his horror show against MK Dons where he gifted them the ball for their opener, it is still deeply worrying when a player’s better attribute suddenly becomes one of his worst.
In addition to this, the usual issues that fans have with Jonny Evans remain. His injury record remains a concern, restricting him to only five 90-minute performances all season.
Evans’ lack of physicality means that he is a liability against big, powerful strikers. His abysmal attempt to thwart Christian Benteke’s equaliser in December epitomises this weakness in his game.
Although the sophisticated nature of Evans’ game means that when his good performances easily go unnoticed, as he extinguishes chances early and simply rather than dramatically, it is impossible to deny that his string of poor performances this season must be testing Van Gaal’s patience.
Verdict: Too many individual errors and injuries mean that his Old Trafford days are probably numbered.
Manchester United appearances: 136
Chris Smalling was one of the players to come under the most criticism during the Moyes era, and he would have certainly been hoping for a fresh start under Van Gaal.
It would be fair to say that so far he has endured a season of highs and lows under the Dutchman, although his regular selection in the heart of the Manchester United defence for their biggest games this season should be a source of great encouragement for the defender.
When Smalling surprisingly signed for Manchester United from Fulham in 2010, having been playing non-league football for Maidstone less than eighteen months prior, he initially looked incredibly strong and hardly put a foot wrong in his first season.
However, not-always-successful stints at right back combined with a string of injuries have seemingly eroded his confidence – he now always seems to play with the trembling lips of a child who has dropped his ice cream cone on the ground.
Smalling’s big game mentality was called into question when he was sent off in the first half at The Etihad in October after two silly yellow cards. However, he demonstrated his resolve to come back from suspension and put in excellent performances against Arsenal, Hull and Stoke.
Though his injury record is still a worry (he was out for the best part of a month earlier this season with what Van Gaal described as ‘stiff legs’), on his day he can combine grit and physicality with mature positioning and anticipation, something which Evans and Jones lack respectively.
Although his ability with the ball at his feet remains a weakness, Chris Smalling has shown enough ability to suggest that if he can remain fit and not have to be shunted to right back, he can become a useful member of Manchester United’s future backline.
Verdict: Should remain at the club in the long term if he can shake off niggling injuries, though needs to be complemented by a good ball playing centre-back.
Manchester United Appearances: 116
It can be hard to believe that Phil Jones’s Manchester United future can be called into question after the praise that was heaped upon him in his first six months at a the club.
Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson himself publically labelled him as potentially one of United’s best ever players, and he has been compared to the likes of John Terry and Duncan Edwards.
However, since his strong first season Jones has shown little sign of improving the raw elements of his game, and much like his compatriots his injury record is highly frustrating.
As a player, Jones is the polar opposite of Evans. Highly athletic, he is capable of some real show reel defending and can completely dominate opposition strikers at times, but it seems that for every breathtaking last ditch challenge there is a comical moment of ineptitude, particularly in his decision-making.
Like Evans, Jones’s ball playing has also deteriorated significantly this season, notably in recent outings against QPR and Cambridge where he gave the ball away on countless occasions.
Although there have been games at the start of the season where Phil Jones has looked Manchester United’s best player, never mind best centre back, his over aggression and lack of concentration can still render him a liability at times.
Though both Sir Alex Ferguson and Moyes have tried to accommodate these weaknesses by deploying him as a ball winning midfielder, Jones’s limited vision and passing range means that he is too slow in recycling possession to play such a role week in, week out.
Unless he greatly improves his decision-making one cannot envisage Jones ever being part of an assured back four / five, and this is surely Van Gaal’s ultimate goal. It also should be noted that Jones’s over eagerness to charge out at attackers and his reliance on last ditch challenges is also a contributing factor to his injury record being the worst out of the three players in this list.
It must be some cause for optimism however that Jones’s rashness has seemed to be somewhat curbed this season, shown by the fact that he has only made one mistake leading directly to a chance and has yet to give away a penalty (something he has specialized in in seasons past).
He seems to be the only player on the list who has benefitted from the switch to the back three, as he gets a little more room for error.
Verdict: Jones’s age and athleticism should ensure he gets more chances at Old Trafford, but progress needs to be fast or else.
It must also be said that all three players lack leadership when on the pitch, and in order for ‘the penny to drop’ with any of them an experienced and commanding centre back must be signed as a partner at the back.
It is little coincidence that all players were at their best when playing alongside either Vidic or Ferdinand, and it is only when they had to play together that their weaknesses became clear.