Manchester United 2011/12 position-by-position review: Centre-Back

WIGAN, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Jonny Evans of Manchester United speaks to team mate Phil Jones during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Manchester United at the DW Stadium on April 11, 2012 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Throughout the week, I hope to keep providing reviews of each Manchester United player's 2011/12 season. I'll be segmenting posts in a position-by-position (goalkeepers [review link here], central-defenders, full-backs, central-midfielders, wingers, & strikers) manner. Today's review is for our central-defenders. Each review will organized by the following:

* 'What we thought' - the general and overall expectations that we had for this position prior to the season.

* 'What we got' - On an individual basis, I'll provide a review of the season.

* What lies ahead?' - The outlook next season for the position and a discussion if reinforcements are needed.

Here are some relevant statistics for our centre-backs from this past season's involvement in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League:

The Busby Babe

App

TKL per/gm

INT per/gm

Fouls per/gm

C /game

BS/gm

Aerial Duels won %

PS %

LB/ gm

LB acc. %

VIDIC

Prem

6

1.00

2.33

0.67

12.83

0.33

75.0%

81.9%

4.50

61.4%

UCL

2

1.00

3.00

1.50

2.50

0.50

75.0%

91.5%

4.00

88.9%

RIO

Prem

29 (1)

1.40

1.83

0.33

7.40

0.70

62.5%

90.0%

5.13

78.2%

UCL

4

1.00

2.25

0.00

7.00

0.25

77.8%

92.3%

6.00

80.0%

EVANS

Prem

28 (1)

1.24

1.90

0.93

7.76

1.00

56.6%

90.1%

3.97

75.2%

UCL

2(2)

1.00

2.25

1.25

3.30

0.00

50.0%

94.1%

4.25

77.3%

SMALLING

Prem

14 (5)

0.89

1.26

1.16

5.00

0.63

71.9%

83.1%

2.21

64.6%

UCL

3 (1)

0.75

1.25

1.30

5.75

1.00

78.6%

88.8%

3.50

73.7%

JONES

Prem

25 (4)

2.34

1.69

0.69

4.38

0.41

57.8%

83.9%

2.41

77.8%

UCL

4 (2)

1.50

1.50

0.50

3.33

0.33

83.3%

84.4%

2.50

71.4%

* App = Appearances with substitute appearances in parentheses, TKL = tackles, INT = interceptions, C= clearances, BS = blocked shots, PS = passing success, LB = accurate long balls

What we thought

United entered the season in nearly an ideal situation in regards to their centre-backs. We had the best in-the-box defender in the world in captain Nemanja Vidic and his partnership with Rio Ferdinand had been the best in the world during the past half-decade. In addition, there were two young and talented apprentices in Chris Smalling and the newly acquired Phil Jones -- the youngsters even had experience working together as the first-choice centre-back pairing for England's U-21 side during last summer's European championships. Furthermore, there was additional cover in the much-maligned Jonny Evans. There wasn't a worry in the world for Sir Alex Ferguson in central-defense.

What we got

Nemanja Vidic - When the steely Serbian broke on that dark and dreary December night in Basel, many feared that United's season was essentially over. The club had just been shockingly eliminated from the UEFA Champions League and hope for another league title felt like it was fading without our captain leading the way. The pain from the 1-6 derby nightmare was still raw then and the task of chasing down Manchester City seemed a bit too daunting for the pessimists (me) out there. We did chase down our 'noisy neighbours' but as you're all aware, we surrendered the title in the dying seconds of the season (or depending on your viewpoint, Sergio Aguero snatched it). No Nemanja for the majority of the season, and no trophies as well.

Vidic only made 6 league appearances this season and two as well in European competition. During those matches, he essentially was his normal self: a beast in the air, tidy enough on the ball, and he complimented whoever was alongside him well. Evans proved to a tremendous deputy (more on that later) but had Vida been available to battle Marouane Fellaini in the 4-4 draw with Everton at Old Trafford late in the season, it's highly unlikely our captain would have allowed the burly Belgian to dominate in the air like he did on that day. Thus, Everton wouldn't have earned a draw and we may have been champions for a 20th time if Vida never went down in Basel.

Rio Ferdinand - If one were to judge Rio's season by 'football reasons', then any sensible observer would determine that the United defender had another fine season. Fitness has certainly been a concern these past few seasons for the class central-defender but this past season saw him make 34 Premier League and Champions League appearances out of a possible 44. In addition, he hasn't missed a game due to a fitness reason since January.

Fergie talked this season about how Rio has lost some pace and a result, he plays a bit deeper. This isn't a big deal for United because they rarely push all of their lines up in an effort to intensely and cohesively press high up the pitch. More often than not, United will look to close down in midfield and defenders are relied upon to read the situation adequately and determine if they need to step up and compact the space between the defensive and midfield lines. Even when they do press heavily as a 10-man unit, it tends to be for short stretches of time. Another reason Rio sitting deeper doesn't hinder his game too much is that he's mostly been a 'covering' defender anyway while his partner generally is the one that steps out of the back for challenges.

Rio's tackling, interception, and foul numbers typically are low because his reading of the game and his positioning is always tremendous. He's rarely forced into last ditch tackles. He was probably switched over to left-CB this season, as opposed to his usual right-CB position, so that he could provide cover for the increasingly out-of-position left-back Patrice Evra. In addition, his on the ball skills are sublime and this is key for United because they are a side that look to build attacks from the back -- this has seemingly been emphasized even more this season in comparison to recent seasons. Rio reacts calmly when he's closed down and he does well to link with the central-midfielders and full-backs. In addition, he's superb at spraying a long-diagonal pass to the flanks or over the top into space for a striker to run onto.

It was another stellar season for England's best central-defender of his generation. The 33-year-old has adjusted well to aging and he's been publicly applauded by the manager for his leadership. Who knows how many class performances he has left in the tank, nor who knows how much longer he'll be wearing the United shirt. Rio's had a brilliant career and he can consider this past season as another fine one.

Jonny Evans - I keep writing it, and I'll do it again -- Jonny Evans has been United's outstanding defender for the 2011/12 season. With Vida and Rio firmly established as the first-choice duo at season's beginning, and with Smalling's rise in the 2010/11 season along with Phil Jones arriving on a £19-million transfer fee, the future looked bleak for the Northern Irishman at Old Trafford. However, opportunity arrived again when the following happened: Vidic sustained a season-ending injury, Rio missed some games due to continual knocks, Smalling had numerous injuries as well and was often used at right-back, and Jones' positioning and aerial duel ability was suspect when deployed in central-defense. Thus, Evans was called upon often and he made the most of his opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in Evans' game was his aerial duel ability and his overall inconsistency. Last season, his 46% aerial duel success rate was very concerning as he was clearly prone to being bullied by physical centre-forwards. The 'he always has a mistake in him' label given to him by some fans and pundits probably does decently well enough to address his inconsistency. This season though, he mostly overcame those weaknesses.

Evans' 56.6% aerial duel success rate this season is far from stellar -- it actually hovered over 60% for much of the campaign -- but it is clear improvement. He was superb in nearly every game this season with the notable exception of the 1-6 derby disaster and the bullying that Fellaini did to him in the 4-4 Everton draw. In short, he's still vulnerable but it would be stretch to say he has any glaring weaknesses anymore.

Alright, let's get now to what Jonny does well. He has good pace for a centre-back and his ability on the ball is strong. As his confidence grew this season, he began to increasingly express himself by stepping out of the back. He often would help create overloads in midfield during the build-up of attacking moves by carrying the ball forward or stepping up to make himself available for a pass in space. He even became quite the threat when United had a corner. In addition, he began to rival Rio's quality distribution with superb long-range passes from deep -- an essential trait for United's tactical emphasis of supplying their wingers. Furthermore, his positioning was absolutely superb this past season and it is this that goes most unnoticed. Properly judging a defender's quality is difficult for many because positioning is not paid enough attention to by some. It's important to do so though because proper positional awareness is the most essential quality a defender can possess -- and Evans has this in spades. Overall, a surprising and superb season from Jonny.

Chris Smalling - The 22-year-old England international had a good debut season at United in 2010/11 and he again featured often at this past season's beginning. However, he spent more time at right-back this season (11 starts) in comparison to centre-back (6 starts). Thus, I'll go into a bit more detail in reviewing his season when I do the full-back review.

One thing I did notice late in the season when Smalling deputised in central-defense -- for an injured Evans -- was a seemingly improved positional awareness. In 2010/11, he was prone to getting dragged out too high when an opposing forward dropped deep and as a result, this often left too much space in behind for United's opponents to expose. In this season's final few matches, I noticed that Smalling stayed in position and was rarely dragged out high. However, this is a really small sample size to adequately analyze whether he has improved or not in this regard.

Beyond this, Smalling was his usual self in that he was solid in tackle, strong in the air, and calm on the ball. He has decent enough technical ability but he can be slightly too loose at times with his distribution. His decision-making can be improved on too when he looks to pass. Overall, it was a decent enough season for the youngster and his talent was once again clear -- despite the numerous knocks he sustained during the campaign.

Phil Jones - Jones' review will be limited here as well due to him only featuring in a combined 9 Premier League and Champions League games at centre-back. In comparison, he started 14 times at right-back and 6 times in central-midfield. Of the five CB's on the first-team squad, Jones is probably the one that makes me most nervous at the moment. He's was vulnerable in the air as a central-defender and his positioning is suspect as well. The 20-year-old must get stronger in the air and he must become more disciplined in a positional sense when deployed in a central-defense role. He's clearly talented and versatile and it may indeed be centre-back that becomes his future home. He just wasn't that great this season in that role.

Michael Carrick/Dimitar Berbatov/Patrice Evra - Yes, the injury situation got so bad at one point that these players were deployed in central-defense.

What lies ahead?

The centre-back picture was a rosy one in August but that's not really the case now. Vida hopes to return by next season's opener but his injury is serious enough -- and he's also 30-years-old now --that it must considered whether he'll ever be of the same dominant quality again. Rio -- at 33-years-old -- is still a very good player but he's clearly past his prime. Smalling is certainly one for the future and he looks a good prospect to be the next great United centre-back -- but he must continue to develop and nothing is guaranteed. Evans is still only 24-years-old so he looks to be both the present and future. However, he is undergoing surgery this summer and it's not quite clear how this will effect his preparation for next season. Jones' future position is yet to be determined and for the mean time, he looks to be a utility man for the club.

Does United need to buy? Not necessarily. Should they explore the idea? Certainly. The club has been lightly linked with some centre-backs but the position isn't a primary concern for now. Thorough analysis of Vida's and Evans' projected recovery is needed and if that turns out dire, then perhaps cover is needed. Rio is declining, Vida might be, Smalling is developing, as is Jones -- only Evans looks to be near his peak at the moment. Perhaps cheap cover could be sought out in case of a worst-case scenario but heavy money should be spent on other needs unless a Mat Hummels type of player can be had (which is highly unlikely).

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