The clocks have gone forward, and the sun's suddenly hanging around a lot later in the evening. It can only mean one thing: summer is coming. And what happens in the summer? That's right. You get carried away with the nice weather, think to yourself 'ooh, I quite fancy an ice-cream', end up dripping ice-cream all over yourself and spend the rest of your day looking like an incompetent child.
Oh, and the transfer window.
The Mats Hummels-to-Manchester United bandwagon is rumbling back to life, and even if he decides to stay in Germany, it seems near-certain that United will buy at least one high-class, high-price, first-choice centre back this summer. With Marcus Rojo having had a decent first year and Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett both extending their contracts for a couple more seasons, the pressure is therefore on the three established central defenders in the squad. At least one, possibly two, and maybe even all three of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans will likely leave. Let's weigh up the pros and cons, shall we?
Phil Jones (23 years old, 123 appearances)
While Bobby Charlton's much-derided comparison of Jones to Duncan Edwards isn't always repeated correctly — it was a comparison between their physique, not their ability — the fact does remain that Alex Ferguson once claimed Jones could become United's "best ever", a comparison with Edwards in all but name. And while Jones hasn't lived up to that — not by some distance — you can still occasionally see what Ferguson getting at. There are moments when Jones looks the very image of a bullocking, English centre half: strong in the challenge, committed in the air; generally a nightmare to play against. He can pass, too, when he remembers how. And take corners. Apparently.
His versatility should also count in his favour here — he can, in theory, cover midfield and right back — but Van Gaal, even in the midst of United's early-season injury crisis (and even when using Antonio Valencia at right back) has shown no interest in Jones the full back or Jones the parody of Yaya Toure. Which is interesting and feels like a policy decision, one that raises the question of how he might have developed had Ferguson and Moyes adopted a similar approach. Very few jacks of all trades end up mastering one ...
... and Jones, for all the comparisons and moments and hard work and willingness, is not a reliably good central defender. Worse, he's at an age where it's legitimate to ask if he's ever going to become one; 23 is the kind of age where potential needs to be solidifying. Great defenders rarely have to recover; good ones do so when they have to. Jones spends most of his games scrambling, and that fact that he's strong enough and quick enough to cover for himself, most of the time, doesn't stop that being a weakness.
The other pressing issue is that of injuries. A few years ago, Ferguson likened Jones to another United great, and though he meant it as a compliment it's hard not to read it as a warning: "He has the courage and willingness to tackle. Bryan Robson was the same. Bryan couldn't see danger and neither can Phil. It's a measure of his courage and I don't want to take that away from him." That would be a problem worth managing around if he were as good as Robson, but he isn't. Indeed, it's hard not to conclude that between the time spent on the treatment table and the time spent covering other positions, he's effectively been kept back a year or two in his development as a centre half. It's an open question whether he'll ever catch it up.
Jonny Evans (27 years old, 197 appearances)
Of the three centre backs we're considering here, Evans' great advantage is that while the other two have at times looked like becoming good enough, he's actually been good enough for decent chunks of his time at United. He dovetailed beautifully — well, not beautifully, but certainly effectively — with Nemanja Vidic at the beginning of the 2010/11 season, and as recently as 2013 Ferguson was enthusing about his blossoming maturity, while the Manchester Evening News were predicting that he'd soon displace either Vidic or Rio Ferdinand.
He also has a different (but perhaps more useful) kind of versatility to Jones, in that he's reasonably comfortable with either foot. Given Van Gaal's preference for a right- and a left-footed combination at the back, it can only be a good thing that Evans can play off either.
Since 2013, his form has been profoundly inconsistent, and he's got the unhappy knack of being at the heart of some abysmal performances. League Cup humiliations at the hands of West Ham and MK Dons spring to mind. Most of the team that played in the latter game found themselves bounced out of the club in fairly short order, and Evans hasn't done much since to suggest that he's anything other than dispensable.
Evans is older that the other two and is far past the the point for any conversations about what he could be. What matters is what he is right now, and sadly that's an unpredictable, unreliable quantity, capable of looking exceptionally assured one week and utterly risible the next. Plus, as a general rule, anybody who gets banned for six games for spitting should probably be moved on. That's profoundly thick.
Chris Smalling (25 years old, 145 appearances)
United's defence has been a bit of a laughing stock all season — moments of exceptional farce alternating with moments of exceptional goalkeeping — but in the last month or so that has been the emergence of something approaching competence. Solidity and shape out of possession, intent and intelligence with it. And Chris Smalling has been at the heart of that.
Installed on the right-hand side of the central partnership, he was near-faultless against Tottenham (and Player of the Year elect Harry Kane) and calm and composed against Liverpool, despite having Antonio Valencia to one side and Jones to the other. Indeed, he's probably the first-choice of the defenders currently at the club, and as such must be considered the incumbent. In recent games he's also shown a willingness to break into midfield as well, if not always the nous to use the ball once he gets there.
If Hummels is the target, then as a right-footed player he'll start in Smalling's position, and of the three discussed here Smalling is the least capable of playing with his left. As such, he'll likely be an option from the bench, and if his recent good form has come thanks to his getting a run in the team, then there's a question to be asked about whether he can drop in and out of the team and retain his effectiveness. And, like Evans above, he's got at least one major incident of rank stupidity against his name this season. That sending off against Manchester City. Again, arguably a sacking offence in itself.
If Louis van Gaal rang the Busby Babe tomorrow — he won't, since he knows we're a busy website and he respects that — then we would say to him: "Look, Louis" — he doesn't mind if we call him that, we're pretty tight — "they're none of them perfect. But of the imperfect options, it's Chris Smalling that makes us feel the less queasy when we see his name on the team sheet. He's good, when he's not being an idiot, and he seems to avoid being an idiot more than the other two. So yeah. Smalling to stay.
"And if you have to keep two of them, Louis" — yep, that's twice. We do not care — "for reasons of cover and depth, then Jones is probably the one worth hanging onto. He can sub in for Rojo on the left hand side, as he's been doing recently, and there is still the glimmer of a sliver of a shade of a chance that he might become the central defensive reincarnation of somebody brilliant.
"But it brings us no pleasure to conclude, however, that Evans is as good as he's going to get, and that's not good enough, enough of the time. That's the call, Louis. That's the ... Louis? Hello? Oh, he's hung up."