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

Are Rafael and Fabio the future first-choice United full-backs?

Next up for our Manchester United 2011/12 season player reviews is the full-backs. I'm continuing to segment the posts in a position-by-position (goalkeepers, centre-backs, full-backs, central-midfielders, wingers, & strikers) manner. Each of the reviews are 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 full-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

Cl /gm

BS/gm

Aerial Duels won %

PS %

Cr/ gm

Cr acc. %

EVRA

Prem

37

2.81

1.38

1.03

4.57

0.24

55.2%

86.3%

0.41

17.6%

UCL

5

3.60

1.20

1.00

2.60

0.20

60.0%

87.3%

0.40

15.4%

RAFAEL

Prem

10 (2)

4.08

1.08

1.00

3.00

0.50

50.0%

88.1%

0.75

23.7%

UCL

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

FABIO

Prem

2 (3)

2.00

1.40

1.40

3.00

0.20

42.9%

84.3%

0.80

44.4%

UCL

5

3.40

2.80

1.40

4.00

-

66.7%

80.8%

1.00

45.5%

SMALLING

Prem

14 (5)

0.89

1.26

1.16

5.00

0.63

71.9%

83.1%

0.26

33.3%

UCL

3 (1)

0.75

1.25

1.30

5.75

1.00

78.6%

88.8%

0.00

0.00%

JONES

Prem

25 (4)

2.34

1.69

0.69

4.38

0.41

57.8%

83.9%

0.38

19.0%

UCL

4 (2)

1.50

1.50

0.50

3.33

0.33

83.3%

84.4%

0.67

44.4%


* App = Appearances with substitute appearances in parentheses, TKL = tackles, INT = interceptions, Cl= clearances, BS = blocked shots, PS = passing success, Cr = accurate crosses

What we thought

There was reason for both optimism and concern. Perhaps cautiously hopeful sums up the general feelings of many United supporters prior to the season in regards to our full-backs. Patrice Evra was coming off a relative down season by his former world-class standards. However, there was hope that his 2010/11 season was an anomaly and that it perhaps resulted from the possible distraction of him captaining France's Word Cup debacle in South Africa in the summer of 2010. Hope and expectation continued to be high for the twins -- Rafael and Fabio -- as both 21-year-olds had already exhibited clear talent and moxie in some of United's biggest games in recent seasons. However, both had also displayed fragility as well and Rafael was set to miss a significant portion of the season due to shoulder surgery. The departures of long-time servants John O'Shea and Wes Brown depleted the position of both experience and depth but manager Sir Alex Ferguson indicated his faith in young centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones being able to comfortably fill-in at right-back if needed.

What we got

Patrice Evra - He got worse. He was probably worse than some were realizing in the earlier parts of the season but he wasn't quite bad as some had proclaimed by season's end. He clearly is no longer a world-class left-back anymore. However, is there a world-class left-back that exists today? Perhaps only when Phillip Lahm switches over to that side of defense for both Bayern Munich and Germany.

Evra's biggest weakness is clearly his positioning. Too often, he gets caught ahead of the ball when United lose possession and that results in acres of space in behind him for opponents to exploit on quick breaks. It may be this reason that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic switched sides in their central-defense partnership because the former does well to cover for other defenders. It's possible though that Evra has always positioned himself in similar areas and that a slight loss of pace at 30-years-old had hindered his recovering ability. It was quite alarming to see a player like Nathan Dyer continually blow by him so easily. If Evra has lost a step, then he will need to make positional adjustments if he wants to prolong playing at football's highest levels. He's a decent enough tackler still in one-on-one situations -- it's just that he's often in poor positions to attempt a challenge.

He is still an asset though when joining the attack. He seemed to form an immediate understanding with Ashley Young down the left side as the two interchanged and combined well. Many marauding full-backs are dangerous when they make surging and late-arriving into space after overlapping their winger. However, Evra tends to be less direct and he varies his movement in the attacking half of the pitch. His early-crossing is actually somewhat poor but he rarely attempts that pass. Instead, he plays a lot of short passes with a winger or with Wayne Rooney when the striker drops deep. If he gets into the box or to the byline, he's capable of providing an incisive cutback if he sees that an attacking teammate has slipped his marker in the box.

It was a difficult season for Evra and perhaps he was distracted by the whole Luiz Suarez racial abuse saga. His form improved after the Liverpool striker was handed an eight-game ban. Overall, a disappointing campaign from the vice-captain and for the second consecutive season.

Rafael - Once again, injury struck the youngster at season's beginning and as a result, he hardly featured prior to the new year. By this time, United had been disappointingly eliminated already from the UEFA Champions League and as a result, Rafael made no appearances in that competition this season. He only made 12 Premier League appearances -- 10 of which were starts.

As the run-in was starting to heat up in March and in early April, Rafael was having a nice run of games. The energetic right-back was brave in tackle, willing to motor forward in support of Antonio Valencia down the right-flank, and he was once again flashing the talent that has had United supporters so excited these past few years. However, he would soon be sidelined again and it wasn't injury as the reason this time -- it was his proneness to switch off in key moments. He failed to track Iker Muniain when he bagged Athletic Bilbao's third goal at Old Trafford and Steven Pienaar got the better of him during the devastating late-season 4-4 draw with Everton. The Brazilian rarely featured after this.

The harsh reality is that Rafa did not develop much this season -- if at all. Injuries, and sometimes poor positional awareness, continue to hinder his grand opportunity to be Gary Neville's clear successor at right-back. The talent is obviously there -- pace, desire, technical ability, toughness, etc -- but the 21-year-old has yet to fully seize his opportunity. Rather than Rafa, it was utility-man Phil Jones that got the nod late in the season at right-back as United tried to chase down the title

Fabio - I recently caught part of a replay of United's season opener versus West Bromwich Albion and I totally forgot that Fabio started at left-back in place of Evra on that day. That also made me wonder how many have forgotten that it was Fabio that started at right-back just over a year ago in the Champions League final versus FC Barcelona. Since these times, the Brazilian has mostly been a stranger and the grand finale of his season was Fergie indicating that Fabio would be going out on loan next season. The full-back -- who is capable of featuring on either the left or right -- only made one more league start after the West Brom match and he also made 5 Champions League appearances. He was probably deserving of more opportunity this season and because he barely featured, I don't remember enough to offer a proper season review on him -- although I don't remember any glaring mistakes and there was a good stretch of the season where I hoped that he would start over Evra at left-back. Like his twin brother though, he's clearly talented but needs further development.

Chris Smalling - With Rio and Vida firmly established at season's beginning as first-choice at CB, it appeared that opportunities might be limited for Smalling unless injury struck one of the stalwarts. The 22-year-old defender did find opportunity though at right-back after Rafael's injury and after the departures of O'Shea and Brown. The England international would go on to make 11 of his 17 league and Champions League starts at right-back this season -- only 6 were made at CB.

In comparison to United's other marauding full-backs, Smalling was relatively conservative with his positioning at right-back. However, he did make the appropriate runs forward when the situation clearly invited him to do so. He was solid defensively but Matthew Jarvis did expose his relative lack of pace for a right-back in United's first meeting with Wolves. He's generally a smooth footballer but there was an awkwardness to his marauding runs forward that I can't fully describe. His attempted crossing attempt rate was the lowest out of those players that featured at right-back this season and it certainly did feel at times that United were lacking enough attacking thrust from that position when Smalling featured there. Overall though, the youngster did a fine enough job at a position that clearly is not his natural one. Being able to provide cover there and not be a liability is a service that should be appreciated.

Phil Jones - Jones is another youngster whose natural position is thought to be at CB. And also like Smalling, he slid over often this season to feature at right-back. The 20-year-old made 29 combined starts in league and in the Champions League and 14 of those were at right-back -- 9 were in central-defense while 6 were in central-midfield. In my humble opinion, Jones looked to be a better fit than Smalling at right-back.

Jones is able to provide driving runs forward down the right touchline and while his crossing is inconsistent, he did have games where it was actually quite good. His tackling is strong too and he provided an aerial outlet for David de Gea down the right touchline when the goalkeeper's closer options were closed down by the opposition. Smalling actually did well too to provide this same outlet. Jones was prone at times at being caught out too high but not nearly to the same extent as Rafael and Evra. It is perhaps Jones' relative balance that had him being first-choice at season's end at right-back. A fine debut season for the versatile Jones and it was arguably right-back where he best serviced the club.

What lies ahead

Fergie needs to do some tough evaluating over the summer because he needs to sort out whether Evra and Rafael are suitable first-choice options next season -- or perhaps even Jones at right-back. The club has been lightly linked this summer to Everton's Leighton Baines and Valencia's Jordi Alba and if there is any validity to these rumblings, then that certainly means the United boss has similar concerns as the United supporters in regards to Evra. Even if one is a staunch believer in Rafa being the club's future right-back, any sensible person would still be concerned about his proneness to injury. There's decent enough cover from Jones and Smalling at right-back so a buy at that position might not be prudent. With Fabio headed out on loan though, cover is needed at left-back and a cheap purchase -- one that can provide cover in multiple defensive positions -- would be a good move. But if a Jorda Alba could be had (and afforded), then that's a move that should be made. With only Evra, Rafa, Jones, and Smalling as the full-back options right now, at least one more player is needed to provide proper squad depth next season. In the bigger picture, Fergie and the club need to make some difficult decisions soon on their long-term plans for each full-back position.

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