Could centre back mistakes cost Manchester United silverware?
Manchester United, 11/2 chances with Coral to capture the Premier League title, must be ruing their decision to chase Sergio Ramos, as the Spaniard is to ink a new deal with Iberian giants Real Madrid until 2020.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) August 17, 2015
Now that the Red Devils’ Ramos pursuit has predictably met a dead end, they may also have missed out on apparent back-up option Nicolas Otamendi. Unfortunately, it was a mistake many could see coming a mile away, and it may now tip the balance of power in Manchester and the title race.
Nobody likes to be second-choice and, while Louis van Gaal was looking the other way, cross-town rivals Manchester City have reportedly been making eyes at the Argentina international who, according to the Spanish press, are close to agreeing a fee for Otamendi.
United can be commended for the swift summer work that saw Memphis Depay arrive at Old Trafford, followed by the savvy purchases of Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger in problem positions.
Yet, it seems Man Utd (9/4 to finish outside the top four) may have taken two steps forward and one back, as they continue to jeopardise their trophy quest by dithering on defensive recruitment.
So far, Chris Smalling, inexplicably overlooked in pre-season, has been a one-man wall marshalling United’s makeshift rearguard, with versatile midfielder Daley Blind as his partner.
Smalling is easily the Red Devils’ best natural defender now, with his pace and power impressive in nullifying threats; yet it seems the centre half’s position is never safe under Van Gaal, despite almost flawless performances.
Therein perhaps lies one of the problems in United bolstering their backline, as Smalling’s occasional clumsiness on the ball does not fit the Van Gaal mould, in which play begins at the back with the goalkeeper.
Philosophies aside, what Man Utd need is a solid base to build upon, and Smalling surely needs an able partner. Blind has done a decent job so far and is undoubtedly composed in possession, but his lack of pace and strength, aside from not being a centre back by trade, make it appear a disaster waiting to happen.
Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, perhaps too impulsive, will have to wait patiently for their chances but don’t appear to figure highly in Van Gaal’s plans, while Paddy McNair is promising, but not yet polished enough. Jonny Evans, meanwhile, looks certain to be on his way out of Old Trafford.
This leaves the Red Devils with a gaping hole in the heart of their defence, and one opponents will exploit. Simply, it could mean the difference between silverware or another season spent watching others celebrate, especially if City land Valencia centre back beast Otamendi.
What other top quality choices are out there, though? Aside from his fixation on playmaking defenders, Van Gaal is also known for favouring balance through both left and right-footers in his backline.
This, unfortunately, makes Man Utd’s pool of potential candidates even smaller and appears churlish, as many top clubs plump for two right-footers, opting for the best talents and sturdy partnerships, instead of a baffling penchant for balance.
Man Utd may miss out again then, if Chelsea nab John Stones from Everton. Brilliant with the ball at his feet, it would be shame for the Red Devils to overlook the young Englishman just for relying on his right peg.
If a left-footer is essential, Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte could be an excellent pick, though he also recently penned a new deal, but could be worth the release clause (a rumoured £36.5m) if United mean business.
Searching for a more experienced candidate could prove a folly, and the Old Trafford outfit should simply focus on who could be the best fit, especially considering the instability surrounding their goalkeeper situation.
Of all the underwhelming options linked, should United, for instance, end up with unattached Ron Vlaar instead once fit after injury, while Stones saunters off unchallenged to Chelsea, serious questions about foresight and future planning should be asked.
If the Northwest giants recruit no-one, however, it could be a rocky season ahead if Smalling succumbs to injury.