During the recent history of Manchester United, the club has been fortunate to have the likes of Denis Irwin, Gary Neville, and Patrice Evra patrolling the wide areas of defense. While Evra is still here marauding up and down the left side of the pitch, the great Neville no longer has the requisite pace to do the same down the right - as a result, he has gone into retirement. However, the da Silva twins, Rafael and Fabio, are here and both have emerged as quality first-choice options. With the departure of John O'Shea and Wes Brown, it is Chris Smalling and Phil Jones who have been experimented at right-back during the pre-season with Jonny Evans at left-back - all three are natural center-backs. Certainly there is quality at this position for United, but unproven depth remains a concern.
The 30-year-old Frenchman has been with the club since 2006 and since then, he's established himself as one of the elite left-backs in football. During this time, Evra's pace, surging runs forward, and solid defending have contributed greatly in the haul of trophies for United. Quite simply, he is the epitome of the modern full-back - an area of the pitch that has been exploited in recent years due to the space provided. Although, it is Evra's aggressive runs forward that cause him to get caught out of position at times. In addition, it could be argued that Evra's 2010-11 season was not up to the same standards that he displayed in previous seasons - perhaps this was a hangover effect from last summer's World Cup.
A tactical pattern emerging at United is the narrow play of the wide left attacker - whether that be Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung, or Nani. In addition, the newly acquired Ashley Young likes to diagonally run at defenders. This is where Evra provides great value. When the wide left attacker drags his marker inward, Evra does a fantastic job at surging forward with overlapping runs and exploiting the unoccupied pace. While not being a strong finisher, despite being brought up in his youth as a striker, he is very capable of whipping in dangerous crosses. Expect the durable Evra to a permanent fixture at left-back for the upcoming season.
When Rafael moved to Manchester United in 2008, it was his twin brother Fabio that was the more highly regarded player. Since then though, it is Rafael who first went on to make an impact at Old Trafford by regularly making first-team appearances. As Neville began to decline the past few seasons, Rafael emerged and the Brazilian became first-choice at right-back for much of the past two seasons. Despite being just 21-years-old, the pacy defender has played on football's grandest stages and he looks more than suited to be a regular fixture at United in the coming years.
Just as Evra does, Rafael provides the ability to surge forward and provide a creative outlet in attack. He also has shown himself to be a crunching tackler as well. While showing the potential promise to become the elite right-back in the Premier League, the youngster has also displayed at times the proneness to concentration lapses. In addition, durability is an issue as Rafael has continually missed stretches during his United career due to various knocks. He certainly appears to be one for both the now and future.
While it took Fabio a little bit longer to get established at United when in comparison to his brother, he certainly made big strides in his development last season when he became first-choice at right-back for the run-in -- the pinnacle of this being his selection for the Champions League final in May. The Brazilian exhibits many of the same attributes as his twin brother - mainly his pace, ability to get forward, and solid defending.
Fabio also provides versatility by being able to play on either flank, both in defense and midfield. This was most notable when he was deployed in the midfield versus Arsenal FC last season in a FA Cup tie and he was arguably the best player on the pitch during the 1st half. In addition, he also appears to be a bit more level-headed and more selective with his forward runs when compared to his brother. For the upcoming season, Fabio will compete with Rafael for the honor of being first-choice at right-back. He will also provide cover for Evra at left-back.
It is quite possible that manager Sir Alex Ferguson deemed the versatile John O'Shea as excess when Jones was brought in this summer. Despite being projected as the future at center-back, along with Chris Smalling, Jones showed his versatility last season for Blackburn Rovers when he was deployed at right-back and as a holding-midfielder. During United's pre-season tour, Jones was experimented with at times at right-back and he was impressive in shutting down Thierry Henry during the MLS All-Star game. While not being the same surging threat to get forward like the da Silva twins, Jones may be able to provide valuable depth at right-back with O'Shea and Brown having departed.
While naturally a center-back, Smalling filled in at right-back last season in brief spells and he has also been experimented back there during the pre-season tour. He did not look entirely natural, nor comfortable at times during the summer at right-back, but he likely will be an option there for this upcoming season with the mentioned departures of O'Shea and Brown. While playing right-back is not likely to happen during any important league or Champions League ties, it is a possibility with the proneness to injury that the da Silva twins have displayed the past two seasons.
While being touted in the past as a successor to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand someday at center-back, Evans struggled at times last season and he is now seen behind both Smalling and Jones in the pecking order. The defender from Northern Ireland may provide value to the club this season though by providing cover at left-back. This may be a role he plays when United play in the early stages of domestic cup matches or if injury strikes to Evra or Fabio.