Ranking the players and contracts of Manchester United, Part 2

Mike Hewitt

Manchester United players are ranked as assets.

If you missed Part 1 of our ranking the players and contracts of Manchester United as assets, click here. That piece also goes into detail explaining the parameters of the ranking system. This is Part 2.

GROUP 6: THE NEW GUARD

16. Chris Smalling | Age: 23 | Wages: £50k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

15. Jonny Evans | Age: 25 | Wages: £65k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

14. Rafael da Silva | Age: 22 | Wages: £50k/ week | Contract: 3 years remaining

In terms of value, these three players are fairly close. Between Evans and Smalling, the former is the more established player as he's been one of the better central-defenders in the Premier League the past few seasons. This has been hugely important because of Nemanja Vidic's recent injury trouble. Smalling, though he hasn't had the prolonged stretches of impressive form like Evans has had, is two years younger and he provides the added versatility of being able to provide cover at right-back.

Rafael gets the slight nod over both players because he's clearly the best right-back on the squad, and possibly better than anyone else in England. In fact, high quality full-backs are a scarce commodity in world football at the moment. Being only 22-years-old and having modest wages with three years remaining on his contract further adds to his value. Evans is perhaps of comparable quality right now with the Brazilian, but the Northern Irishman is not the undoubted best central-defender on the squad as the old guard of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are still competition for being first-choice.

Going forward, both Evans and Rafael need to maintain the consistency they've shown this season as this was perhaps the biggest criticism of each in the past. Beyond that, if they can continue to improve as they eventually reach their peak footballing years, then they will provide United two stalwarts in their back four for quite some time. That, of course, is far from a certainty, but both are promising candidates.

Smalling needs to take the proverbial step forward in consistency like Evans did when he was 23-years-old. In addition, improvement is needed with the England international's positioning and tidiness on the ball, something that should naturally develop -- to an extent -- with experience. Smalling, though, appears to possess the required physical abilities for a modern day central-defender.

GROUP 7: THE (31-YEAR-OLD) MIDFIELD STALWART

13. Michael Carrick | Age: 31 | Wages: £80k/week | Contract: 1 year remaining

I pondered for awhile wondering where Carrick should rank on this list. Should he be lower because he's 31-years-old and reaching the point where he'll have to soon earn rolling one-year contracts after being assessed each season? Or should be higher because he's arguably the most indispensable player on the current squad?

United's midfield has been an easy punching bag in recent seasons for pundits, whether that be the same ones on television trying to convince you Scott Parker is still a good player because he aimlessly runs around a lot or those armchair ones in pubs trying to tell you (really loudly) that Michael Carrick is rubbish compared to Frank Lampard because the United midfielder doesn't score a comparable amount of goals. Many of the latter 'pundits', though, don't like the taste of really simple logic (because beer apparently tastes better) when you tell them that Lampard is basically an attacking-midfielder when Chelsea are in the attacking-third (and admittedly, a terrific finisher) -- despite his current double-pivot role -- and that Carrick is a deep-lying playmaker. 1+1 = 4 to some people. Anyway...

United's midfield has been better this season, even if it's still not on the same level as FC Barcelona's nor Bayern Munich. There's no shame in that. It has proven to be functional, though, when needed against formidable foes such as Real Madrid and Manchester City while it's also shown enough imagination to launch attacks against lesser sides. The anchor to the midfield, no matter what the tactics are, has been Carrick.

If manager Sir Alex Ferguson wants to play a possession-based football with either Tom Cleverley, Paul Scholes, or Ryan Giggs, Carrick is the perfect partner because of his astute positioning and ability to intercept passes from the opposition in front of United's back four. If Anderson starts, Carrick is the best partner to patrol the space in behind when the Brazilian makes his driving runs forward. If Phil Jones starts in midfield because he's been tasked with a difficult marking job on a specific attacker or midfielder, then Carrick's ability to read the danger elsewhere makes him United's best option as a midfield partner for these tactics. And I haven't even mentioned Carrick's obvious abilities as a distributor until now. The Englishman provides so much balance and stability.

Even if other players on the squad, some of those ranked lower on this list, are theoretically more valuable on the transfer market, none of them are as invaluable as Carrick to this current United squad. And he's showing no signs of slowing down at 31-years-old.

GROUP 8: WOEFUL WINGERS

12. Ashley Young | Age: 27 | Wages: £120k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

11: Antonio Valencia | Age: 27 | Wages: £90k/week | Contract: 2 years remaining

10. Nani | Age: 26 | Wages: £90k/week | Contract: 1 year remaining

The less said about our woeful wingers, the better. If you want more said though, then read this.

Okay, I'll say a few things because you're probably wondering why I put this group of players ahead of players who've actually been good this season.

It's quite simple, none of these wingers are rubbish and each would likely fetch a decent chunk of money on the transfer market. And attackers tend to be more valuable than defenders. The market value of Nani and Valencia could potentially be tested this summer.

GROUP 9: THE NON-BACK-FOUR UNDER-25 CORE

9: Wilfried Zaha | Age: 20 | Wages: £35k/week | Contract: 5 years remaining

United's first summer-signing isn't a player I've seen much of, so my opinion of him is limited. I did, though, have this assessment of him after doing a running diary of his performance against Middlesbrough in February:

Zaha's decision-making was very good as was the accuracy of his passes -- whether they were whipped-in crosses or defense-splitting through balls. The touch he displayed was tremendous as well as it looked like his boots were pillows when he was operating in tight spaces. His calmness when under pressure is impressive as is his willingness to have a go at his marker(s). When he dribbles, it looks as if the ball is glued to his feet. Furthermore, his athleticism is clear for everyone to see: his acceleration is explosive and when he's running at full-speed, he consistently glides past defenders.

It was also encouraging to see that Zaha is comfortable on either flank and also through the middle. He exhibited 'old-school' winger ability while also showing the elements of a modern footballer by effectively floating into available attacking space all across the pitch. He can beat his opposing full-back to either side -- and on either flank -- and he showed (in this game at least) that he can cross with both feet. His shooting ability, though, was never really on display.

If United get a similar caliber of performances from the likes of Nani, Valencia, and Young next season, then Zaha will get a lot of chances to establish himself at the club. High expectations of the 20-year-old -- at least for his first season in the Premier League -- is perhaps unfair, but excitement over his arrival is reasonable. At the moment, he's a valuable asset when considering his potential, age, and contract terms.

8: Tom Cleverley | Age: 23 | Wages: £40k/week | Contract: 2 years remaining

Cleverley has developed into a good central-midfielder, but his value at United is perhaps heightened because of the ages of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, and Giggs, and also because of the uncertain futures of Darren Fletcher and Anderson.

The 23-year-old's current contract is of good value, but there's been speculation in recent months that he may get a new four-year deal for £60k/week. The possible new terms would still make great financial sense for the club.

The Englishman does have some detractors. Musa Okwonga, though, in a column for ESPN FC, did well to describe some of Cleverley's virtues, particularly with this description of the midfielder:

Cleverley's key asset is his speed of thought on the ball. His ability to exchange incisive passes at the highest tempo is why he is so rare, and so highly rated by Hodgson and Sir Alex Ferguson. A famous and enduring example of this quality is Nani's equaliser against Manchester City in the 2011 Community Shield, where Cleverley was a swift and nimble architect of one of the goals of the season.

7. David de Gea | Age: 22 | Wages: £70k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

A £17-million transfer fee two summers ago for a then 20-year-old probably wasn't great value at the time. Perhaps though, the club felt they needed to act boldly and decisively in order to immediately replace the then retiring and brilliant Edwin van der Sar. And of course, the club could have had conviction that de Gea was an exceptional talent. That's a sunk cost now, so his current value as an asset is the only thing relevant. And what an asset the Spaniard is.

de Gea is a Europa League winner, he recently captained Spain's Under-21 side, and he's already been involved in massive Premier League and UEFA Champions League ties with United. He's a world-class shot-stopper, good with his distribution, and increasingly improving at his commanding his box. It'll be more of a surprise at this point if he doesn't develop into a world-class goalkeeper than if he does.

Yo Barcelona and Real Madrid, stay away from him...

6. Danny Welbeck | Age: 22 | Wages: £75k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

Tactically intelligent, a keen understanding of space, purposeful movement, responsible with the ball, ownership of impressive strength and pace, and by many accounts, a model professional at such a young age -- these are all fair ways to describe Welbeck. So is pointing out that he struggles for goals.

Welbeck gets shunted out wide, and away from his preferred central-role, more often than some remember. He also contributes to positive attacking moves and indirectly involves himself in goals made when many don't realize it. I remember one specific instance last season when I was asked by a friend, "why did that defender run away from Rooney before he shot?!" My response, "because Welbz dragged him away and cleared that space with an intelligent off-the-ball run."

Nonetheless, Welbeck should be bagging more goals. If he ever starts scoring 20+ goals a season, he'll become one of the best footballers in Europe. He's still a good young footballer, though. Ferguson's trust in him for massive games is a testament to that.

5. Phil Jones | Age: 21 | Wages: £50k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

When sorting out my rankings, I continually moved Jones up and down the list. I had a lot of difficulties in trying to decipher his relative worth. I eventually settled on this spot, though, because the 21-year-old would fetch a handsome transfer fee if he were sold and more importantly (in my mind at least), he provides United a physical presence in midfield they've sorely missed since Fletch succumbed to ulcerative colitis.

Now, we don't know what Jones' long-term position is. Both he and the gaffer keep suggesting it's at center-back. However, he's been more valuable to United -- thus far in just two seasons and in the first two years of his 20s -- as a combative central-midfielder or as cover at right-back. Part of that is due to the quality depth of Vidic, Ferdinand, Evans, and Smalling in central-defense and the lack of relative depth in the other positions where Jones helps out with.

The youngster's standing on a list such as this could vary drastically in the next few years. He faces fierce competition from Evans and Smalling -- along with other potential future signings and with the possible development of Michael Keane or Scott Wootton -- for a future as first-choice at center-back. Rafael is beginning to make right-back his own while a regular role in central-midfield would require a lot more further development, despite the tactical importance he provides now with his current skill-set.

Jones' willingness to battle for the cause is evident, but at the moment, it could be a reason why he picks up so many knocks. He appears to be a wild card for now, but he's not a player I'd bet against from making a big impact at United over the next decade.

4. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) | Age: 24 | Wages: £75k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

I hate lazy analysis. I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate it. It's a big reason why I write about football.

I hated it when people would wonder what Park Ji-sung provided United (insert your shirt sales joke now). I hate it when some have no clue what Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa bring to a side when, God Cantona forbid, they don't tangibly contribute with a goal or an assist in any given match. I also hate salad.

I used to get annoyed when fans would make the general joke of, "if you combined Chicharito and Welbeck, you'd have the perfect striker!" I admit, that does makes sense to an extent... (or I'm getting lazy)

Snipers are highly-trained marksman and they're incredibly efficient. They're elite specialists. This is pretty much what Chicharito is.

The Mexican international is an assassin in the box, there's no question of that. If you gave his finishing ability to Welbeck, Danny Hernandez would be a lethal striker. So would Javier 'ChichaWelbz' Hernandez.

Chicharito is a poacher that some say can't fully adapt to the modern game. My guess is that, if United put him up for sale this summer, they'd likely get a good offer and from a handful of really good European sides. He's 24-years-old, he's guaranteed to give you 20+ goals if he's provided enough games and chances, and his movement and pace creates space for creative-attackers underneath. Chicharito is a massive asset because of his elite abilities, despite his clear deficiencies.

3. Shinji Kagawa | Age: 24 | Wages: £80k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

I debated quite a bit whether to rank Kagawa or Chicharito at #3 on this list. United, though, have a handful of quality strikers in their squad right now but they've never had a No.10 quite like Kagawa. Just because of scarcity, I decided to give the Japanese international the nod.

Kagawa is a player I've admired from afar since his arrival at Borussia Dortmund. Jurgen Klopp's side would brilliantly squeeze the play high up the pitch with their pressing and when possession was won, the Japanese star -- from a No.10's role -- would quickly combine with his fellow attackers for instantaneous chances created. It was breathtaking football.

Things haven't gone poorly for Kagawa at United, but it hasn't been a rapid start for him either. There's been a feeling-out period and even at the near of this season's end, there's still not a clear understanding. Kagawa has flashed his brilliance at times, and his audacity, but he's been somewhat cautious too.

United have kept their shape compact from the back this season, not from the front. Ferguson's side can certainly be direct, but they're also patient at times in transitions. Kagawa seems to be more patient now as well.

Kagawa is tremendous talent. We'll know more about the the club's adaptability and his -- and their compatibility -- next season. Hopefully this doesn't become a Juan Sebastian Veron situation. Ferguson understood the Argentine's brilliance -- just as he does Kagawa's now -- hopefully though, United accommodate him better.

GROUP 10: THE FRANCHISE PLAYERS

2. Wayne Rooney | Age: 27 | Wages: £250k/week | Contract: 2 years remaining

I've recently expressed my appreciation and frustration for Rooney in this linked piece. If anything, it's a chronicle of his time at Old Trafford and hopefully, it provides context for a mercurial, and as a whole for his time at United, a brilliant talent.

Rooney recently being dropped against Real Madrid for a hard-working, tactically aware, and younger Welbeck is perhaps the most simple symbolic representation of the former talisman's standing at the club. He's still immense, and he was the face of the franchise since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure in the summer of 2009, but might he be sold this summer?

Two years remain on Rooney's contract, and at age 27, this summer has become a critical time for United to decide on Rooney's future. Will they commit to him? This could depend on the interest they potentially receive if they're stealth enough in expressing his availability.

1. Robin van Persie | Age: 29 | Wages: £200k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining

The goals have dried up as of late, but where would we be in this season without our current talisman's ability to deliver in the most crucial moments when the title race was still a contest?

RvP is 29-years-old and his wages are now high. However, how much would Roberto Mancini have paid for the Dutchman if he had Sir Alex's influence at City?

RvP is a depreciating asset. He still, though, has been the Premier's League best player for the past two years, massively influenced the title race this season, and we'll fancy his chances at being as good as any player in England in the next three 3 years. This is an incredibly hungry and disciplined player.

Oh, and remember Eric Cantona's first season's club at Old Trafford? There are parallels.

"He's capable of providing moments of inspiration that we haven't seen in the British game for years. He inspires people around him. He changes his way of playing in different games; he has the intelligence to understand the tactical part. Perhaps this club, this stadium, is what he always needed."

- Ferguson on Cantona


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