Imagine that you're spending the afternoon with Stephen Hawking in a cafe and he says to you through his speech generating device while aimlessly staring into the gray gloom of early spring, "Dude, this weather is for the birds. Let's jump into this wormhole I've created and travel back in time to August when the sun was still radiating!" Perhaps you're a man of science and you respond, "cool beans Stevo, I'm down for a day of traveling through the fourth dimension." On the other side of that wormhole is August 1, 2011 and the location is a pub near Old Trafford. Upon seeing the 'Theatre of Dreams', and also yourself as you were nearly 8 months ago, your mind wanders to thoughts of United and you decide to tell (or shock) your past self (*), "Yo man, Jonny Evans will be United's outstanding defender this upcoming season. Oh, and Patrick Vieira is still a numpty." Chances are, your past self would stare at you like you were a crazy-man or he'd wonder if your present self hit his head through the turbulent journey of time travel. He might even presume that United were now a mid-table side -- you know, like Liverpool.
(*) This might be a paradox, I'm not really sure. It's been awhile since I read Hawking for recreation. Feel free to chime in if you happen to be a physicist.
Ahead of the current season, center-back (CB) was a position that inspired confidence because the first-choice duo of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand had been the world's best pairing for much of the past half-decade. In addition, the promising young duo of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were considered the future and able deputies. Oh, and there was Evans. Here is what I wrote about the North Irishman in our positional season preview for CB's:
"After a promising start to his United career, the defender from Belfast struggled last season while deputising for the injured Rio Ferdinand at season's beginning. When Ferdinand was injured once again later in the season, Evans fell behind Smalling in the pecking order at center-back. While still being perceived by some as having the potential to play at the highest level, the 23-year-old has seemingly become 5th choice at center-back and he will have to claw his way back up this upcoming season."
I later continued with this:
"Evans might be plying his trade elsewhere come next summer. "
I was wrong. My guess is that many of you were wrong too (**)! As the season progressed, these events occurred instead: someone broke the steely Serbian in Switzerland, Rio's chronic back issue has been... well chronic, Smalling has been dressing up as Peter Cech lately, and Jones has impressed at every role he's been deployed in... except for CB. Throw in a young foreign goalkeeper that somewhat struggled to adapt to his new surroundings at the season's beginning and a former world-class left-back that now has the positional awareness of a drunken sailor at sea and you have the recipe for tumultuous times in the back. But there has been one constant this season -- the former 5th choice Evans who valiantly clawed his way back up the pecking in order to become first-choice at present time. It didn't occur by default either, it has certainly been merited as the 23-year-old has been one of the top defenders in the Premier League this season.
(**) This is how I tend to cope when I make mistakes. I assume the rest of you are idiots too. This is not healthy.
Undoubtedly though, Evans was generally poor last season. Football statistics have their limitations -- especially for defenders -- but some basic ones do decently well to highlight some of his strengths and weaknesses. During the 2010-11 league campaign, the CB made 11 starts and 2 substitute appearance. In that time, his impressive 3.1 interceptions per match hinted at a player that reads the game well and gets himself into positions to cut out passes. However, his 46% aerial duel 'success' rate last season hinted at a player that lacked the necessary vigor to compete with physical Premier League center-forwards (CF). More than anything, Evans' aerial frailties is what concerned me the most and it made me wonder if he'd make it at United.
This season though, Evans has shown remarkable improvement in aerial duels and this is exemplified by his 70% success rate thus far. Admittedly, and perhaps it's an unreasonable feeling due to post-traumatic stress, I still feel nervy when he goes up against a physical CF -- again though, this is probably silly due to continual competency that he has displayed this season. By mostly making up for his deficiencies this season, it has allowed for his strengths to be showcased. As previously mentioned, Evans takes up intelligent positions as he shows an often unappreciated judgment on when to step out and challenge or when to stand back (***). In addition, he is good on the ball -- his tidy distribution (90% passing success rate) is key for a side that likes to patiently build moves from the back to attack, his ability to hit a long-diagonal ball is key for igniting attacks when an opening presents itself higher up the pitch, and this ball-playing ability along with his mobility even allows him to step out of the back and help create overloads in midfield. Furthermore, this good mobility for a CB allows him to comfortably defend when he has to turn. Thus, manager Sir Alex Ferguson can feature Evans if he wants to play with a higher line in the back -- although Rio and Vida are now vulnerable to this now so he only Smalling or Jones are viable options as a partner for this tactic.
(***) Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelan is a CB who is often lauded because the typical observer admires the outstanding plays that he makes on the ball. However, many aren't aware of how often he is caught out of position and how this can be the genesis of an attacking move by the opposition that leads to a chance created.
The cynic will you that Evans 'always has a mistake' in him and maybe he does as exemplified by this season's Manchester derby at Old Trafford. However, that's a miserable position to take and it's quite unfair to our CB when the context of the majority of this season is considered. He's not perfect, nor is he world-class, but he's been much more than any of us could have dreamed for a deputy when our captain -- who is the best in-the-box defender on the planet -- ruptured his cruciate ligament in Basel. If anything, Evans has been United's standout defender of the season and he'll be our defensive stalwart for the run-in as we chase title number 20.