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Where have all the good defenders gone?

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Manchester United’s struggles to recruit top class defenders are reflective of a wider pattern in football

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

As the team sheets were announced for the 2018 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Chelsea back in May, there began a familiar murmur of discontent from the Manchester United fans. “That’s a back four that Ferguson signed” was the disappointed response to the sight of Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young lining up for United, five years almost to the day since Sir Alex Ferguson has last managed the club. In truth, the club has signed a number of defenders since the departure of Ferguson in May 2013 – Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Victor Lindelöf and Eric Bailly among them, while Jonny Evans and Rafael were sold – but creating a settled defence has been a particular area of trouble for United in the intervening years.

It was with the intention of establishing a defensive continuity that Sir Alex Ferguson signed Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Signed on the basis of a handful of performances each from Blackburn Rovers and Fulham, Jones and Smalling were earmarked as the long-term successors to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić. Since then however, both have failed to grasp the nettle of opportunity and nail down a starting berth as their own.

There have been efforts to improve the defence since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, though a number of these players have been hampered with injuries since arriving. Luke Shaw suffered a broken leg in September 2015, Marcos Rojo damaged his cruciate ligament in November 2016 and Eric Bailly was injured for large parts of the 2017/18 season. It has been with such injuries – in addition to failures in the transfer market – that José Mourinho has converted Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, attacking wide players, into his defensive wing backs. Injuries have not helped the Manchester United defensive problems but it is arguably a bigger issue that the defenders at Manchester United at present are not of the calibre required to compete at the highest level.

It does leave the question remaining however, why a club of Manchester United’s stature have failed so desperately to build a defence. We must wonder whether this is a football-wide issue, or one that relates specifically to Manchester United.

Manchester United v Aston Villa - Premier League
Those were the days.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

In his book The Mixer Michael Cox defines different cycles of football philosophies in European football. Cox highlights 2004-2007 as the era of Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, where defensively minded football prevailed with the utilisation of holding defensive midfielders. Mourinho would go on to achieve great success with a similar system at Inter while the Atletico Madrid team of 2014 would be built on similar principles. Since that era however, Juego de Posicion, the Guardiola inspired position-oriented possession football, has prevailed. It is to this end that we wonder whether defending has suffered while footballing acumen has improved among defensive players.

Football is now often epitomised by a high press – pressurising defenders in possession with the intent of winning the ball back quickly – and for that reason defenders need to be adept with the ball at their feet. Offenses now attempt to be more proactive, taking the control of the game away from the defence forcing defenders to become more reactive.

Alternatively, when teams do not implement a high press, defenders have become quasi-playmakers in their own right and are expected to start moves from defence. Gerard Pique at Barcelona or Virgil Van Dijk at Liverpool are classic examples of such a modern-day defender. Morever, rather than attack the ball in the mould of a John Terry or even Steve Bruce, positional football is more a cerebral game that highlights the importance of reference points for the player: the ball, the space, the opponent, and their own teammates. According to Marti Perarnau:

The defenders build the game from defense and should determine the beginning of the attack. If the opponent is sitting deep and the strikers aren’t pressuring it is the job of the defenders to move towards the opponent and attack them in order to disorganize them.

Defending has become multifaceted wherein the defenders play an active role in the offence, in addition to their own defensive duties. It is with this in mind that we must appreciate that there are fewer and fewer players in the classic English mould of a defensive centre back because the position has changed so greatly, yet perhaps our mindsets have not. Defenders even at an early age are being taught to build play and start offensive manoeuvres. Given that this is a relatively new innovation in footballing practice, we are arguably not yet at a moment where top level defenders of this ilk have yet emerged.

While generally serving as a platform showcasing attacking players, it is worth mentioning the Balon D’Or. In the decade since 2017, only three defenders have featured in the top 10, out of a possible 100. Philip Lahm came sixth in 2014. In 2016, Pepe of Real Madrid came joint ninth, while his teammate Sergio Ramos came sixth in 2017. Compared with the 1990s during which twenty-three defenders were nominated, out of a possible 100, with at least two defenders in the top ten every year except for 1999 (with three in 1997 and five in 1990). While the Balon D’Or is not an exact science of footballing brilliance, often being little more than a popularity contest favouring bigger clubs and attacking players, it does represent a changing shift not only in attitudes but in the perception of what constitutes brilliant footballers.

Manchester United are now linked with Leicester City’s Harry Maguire, Barcelona’s Yerry Mina, Tottenham Hotspurs’ Toby Alderweireld and Alex Sandro of Juventus. Fans are understandably weary of signing any players on the back of an international tournament (see- Karol Poborsky, Jordi Cruyff, Kleberson, Daley Blind). Both fans and the media have also criticised each of the potential signings on issues ranging from age to whether some of these players are even good enough to play for Manchester United.

It is a fair point however that there is a dearth of defenders available. Last season, Manchester City and Liverpool signed John Stones and Virgil Van Dijk respectively; good defenders yet with potential doubts over their durability and ultimate calibre. Both signings now look like savvy business, as even if these players are not at the Fabio Cannavaro level of defending, they are arguably two of the best defenders available in world football, given the general standard. Perhaps the likes of Maguire and Alderweireld are the best players available at the moment and Manchester United fans should be appreciative of whatever improvement they will bring.

It is also worth mentioning that lean periods in positional areas are not a new concern to Manchester United. In his final decade at the club, Sir Alex Ferguson tried and failed on many occasions to solve the problematic central midfield area. It is arguable that between 1993 and 2013 Roy Keane and Michael Carrick were the only successful central midfielders that Ferguson signed with a lot of disappointing results otherwise (see Eric Djemba Djemba, Kleberson, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves – injury admittedly, Nick Powell).

It is now the area of defence which requires the most necessary work and it appears as though United find themselves in a position where the favourable notion of “careful evolution” is no longer possible and widescale revolution is needed to properly prepare Manchester United for the forthcoming Premier League and Champions League seasons.