I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.
What was expected
During the 2010-11 campaign -- one in which United won their 19th league title while they also reached the UEFA Champions League final -- Rio Ferdinand often struggled with injury and it was Chris Smalling -- not Evans -- that was preferred as the deputy. During the summer of 2011, United then signed the highly-rated Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers. At that point in time, there was some serious doubt about the future of the Northern Irishman's Old Trafford career.
In the 2011-12 season though, Smalling struggled with form and fitness while Nemanja Vidic missed the majority of campaign due to injury. Jones' versatility had him deployed all over the pitch and thus, opportunity presented itself for Evans at center-back-- and he seized it. The Northern Ireland international was a consistent presence in the United starting XI and he was one of the Premier League's top players at his position. The hope was that this would continue into this season.
What we got
* GS = games started (substitution appearances), Avg P = average passes per game, PS% = passing accuracy percentage, LB = accurate long ball per game, LB% = long ball accuracy, TKL = tackles per game, INT = interceptions per game, F= fouls committed per game, AD% = aerial duels won percentage
Overall, Evans had a solid season, though it wasn't quite as impressive as his previous one. Sir Alex Ferguson did well to rotate his center-backs and because he generally avoided playing Ferdinand or Vidic more than once a week, it was often Evans that was paired with one of them since it was easier on his younger legs to play twice in a four-day span -- these three were clearly the preferred center-backs for the gaffer so this was the rotation when there were key matches both at the weekend in the midweek. In the latter half of the season, when Vidic featured more regularly after recovery from his serious knee issues, he typically did so more in the physical Premier League while Evans was the most-used center-back in Europe.
Evans' highest-profile top-notch performance occurred at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid. The 25-year-old, who was partnered alongside Ferdinand, was superb that night as he was a hero against the narrative. Here's something I wrote about him immediately after that match:
"What many fail to recognize is that Evans is actually a really good footballer now. His positioning is astute, he's able in tackle, adequate in the air, very good on the ball (with both feet), and he's mobile. He's a modern central-defender that just put in an extraordinary performance on a gigantic European night."
Evans may never reach the dominant heights that Vidic and Ferdinand did in their primes (this shouldn't ever be an indictment on anybody, though), but he has matured into a complete footballer. His two biggest weakness -- consistency and his ability to battle in the air -- are no longer much of a concern. He's more than adequate to handle the rigors of English football while he's also a British defender that is composed and class enough on the ball to play the continental game. Furthermore, his mobility and ability to read the situation of the opposition's attacks allows him to be a formidable foe against those with fluid attacks.
Evans is tidy in possession and he has the passing range to spray the ball out to the flanks or over the top for a striker -- and he can do this with both feet. In addition, like Rio -- especially in the Englishman's younger days -- the Northern Irishman has the ability and confidence to bring the ball out of the back. He's been known to make a driving run through midfield or simply work his way into that zone so that he can help create overloads in the build-up of an attack. This is something that Fergie appreciated:
"Jonny's one of the best in our defence at coming out with the ball. He's a terrific user of the ball and he's quick. I've been pleased with him."
Furthermore, Evans is threat to score from set-pieces. A bit like Patrice Evra, he's shown a recent knack to both slip his marker and win the initial ball from a set-piece delivery but perhaps more impressively, he's displayed a predatory instinct to win the second ball in a scrap -- this has all contributed to his goal return in these past few seasons. When defending against set-pieces, his mobility has allowed him to be one of the primary man-markers in United's hybrid man-/zonal-marking schemes. He's not as strong as Vidic, Smalling, and Rio in guarding an aerial zone from a stationary position, but he and Jones are both very effective shadowing an attacker due to their mobility.
At 25-years-old, Evans appears to be entering his prime. And in comparison to Jones and Smalling, he's likely most ready to step up as a center-back stalwart should father time catch up to the career's of Rio and/or Vida in the very near future. Things can change in a hurry, though, and perhaps new manager David Moyes will rate one of (or both) the younger center-backs more highly than Evans. Nonetheless, the Northern Ireland international will likely be an important squad member in the near future while he will also have the opportunity to make one of the first-choice center-backs roles his own as well.