Marcos Rojo had so nearly left Manchester United. The Argentinian defender spent transfer deadline day at Goodison Park hoping to complete a move to Everton. The deal fell apart when the Toffees only offered to take him on loan rather than make the move permanent.
Fast forward three months and Rojo has found himself not only playing more football than expected but more than he played all of last year. Thanks to injuries to Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe, most of that time has been at center back.
Rojo is a far better center back then he is a left back. I know that, you know that, and seemingly everyone other than José Mourinho knows that. Given this, it’s not surprising that he’s put in solid performances in his opportunities. So solid that now some are starting to say he should be picked ahead of Victor Lindelöf to pair with Harry Maguire.
Are we really doing this again?
It was just two weeks ago, fresh off victories against Partizan, Norwich, and not Chelsea’s first team, that fans began to wonder if the team had finally moved on from Paul Pogba. A 1-0 loss to Bournemouth put them right back in their place.
So too now we have to look at Rojo. His starts this year have come against Astana, Rochdale, AZ Alkmaar, Liverpool (back three), Partizan, Chelsea (back three), and Partizan. Taking solid performances against extremely inferior opponents as a sign of a player turning the corner is an easy way to get sucked into a false dawn.
Rojo’s solid performances are easily juxtaposed against the inconsistency of Victor Lindelöf, who many see as having a bad season. It seems simple — they play the same position and therefore if Rojo is playing well and Lindelöf isn’t, just swap Rojo in.
Of course it’s more complicated than that. The question of Lindelöf vs. Rojo ultimately comes down to two questions, the first being: What are the highest valued attributes for modern day center backs?
The obvious answer is: defending! Duh. Are they good in the air? Can they tackle? Etc., etc…
That’s basically been the case since football was invented but… times have changed. Since the advent of the back pass rule in 1992, there’s been a bigger emphasis on defenders who can play with the ball at their feet. Since Pep Guardiola came around there’s been even more emphasis. Like I said, modern day football.
With the rise of pressing and possession football over the past decade it’s more important than ever for defenders to be able to play with the ball at their feet. That’s why Manchester City spent £50 million on center back John Stones even though he’s a pretty bad defender. That’s why Gareth Southgate stuck Stones in the center of his back three even though —again — he’s not really good at the defending part. That’s why Harry Maguire cost £80 million.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when City have injuries in their back line Guardiola doesn’t turn to backup defenders, but midfielders. He’ll play Fernandinho as a center back, and Fabian Delph and Alexandr Zinchenko as left backs.
Defending is now a almost a secondary attribute. Getting the ball and just hoofing it down field, or into touch, just gives it back to your opponent and now you have to defend again. Winning the ball back and being able to maintain possession means you don’t have to keep defending, and any defensive weakness you may have has less of a chance of being exposed.
That’s where Victor Lindelöf comes in. A big reason why he was signed was because of his ability to play with the ball at his feet. Is he the best at defending aerial balls? Most certainly not. Does he get lost picking up players in the box? Sometimes. But these days nearly every defender has his flaws. The amount of world class center backs in the game is significantly lower than it was 10 years ago.
There is this feeling that Lindelöf has been bad this season. While he’s certainly been picked on by opposing teams, to say he’s been completely at fault for too many goals is a bit harsh. Among the examples people point to is the goal against Crystal Palace.
To call this a mistake is relatively harsh. He gets beaten on a header but we know he’s not the best in the air.
Then there’s the goal against Southampton.
Vestergaard makes a run that gets unchecked by... everyone. Lindelöf looks like he’s lining that header up and just completely misses. It’s not a mistake from Lindelöf so much as a mistake from everyone.
And then of course there’s the Bournemouth goal.
I don’t know what Lindelöf is doing here, BUT, this isn’t his man. There’s confusion between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. Lindelöf should have come and helped close Joshua King down and doesn’t. But there are so many breakdowns here that it’s impossible to pin this on Lindelöf. Is he at fault? Yes, but so are plenty of others.
As poor as we think Lindelöf’s heading is, he’s won 29 of 45 aerial battles in the Premier League (64.4%). That is slightly higher than the 63.77% that Maguire has won (44 of 69). That’s not nearly as bad as you think.
But what’s the biggest reason that Lindelöf essential to the team?
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United rely heavily on the passing ability of their center backs. That’s even more true in the absence of Paul Pogba where the onus of making line breaking passes usually falls on the defenders.
Harry Maguire averages 60.67 passes per match, Lindelöf averages 58.55. That’s almost 120 passes between the two of them per match. United as a team average 475 passes per match. If 25% of those passes are coming from your center backs, you damn well want to make sure you’re completing most of those passes.
Lindelöf does. He’s completed 86.23% of his passes in all competitions this year, just behind Maguire’s 86.75%. Marcos Rojo does not.
Rojo has completed just 82.74% of his passes in all competitions this year. That number is heavily influenced by his play in the Europa League. In the Premier League (*small sample size alert*) he’s completing just 69.56%. That’s bad.
Most of those Premier League passes came against Liverpool, admittedly a very tough opponent. That was a game where Rojo drew a lot of praise for playing well. And he did, mostly because we expected the worst from him.
Let’s not forget how that game ended.
Rojo just completely wanders away from his man, leaving him wide open on the back post for an easy finish. A great 1-0 win turns into a good 1-1 draw just like that.
And that is the knock on Rojo. It’s not just the rash two footed challenges that seem to happen way too often, it’s that no matter how well Rojo is playing there’s always at least one major lapse of concentration. Usually, that ends with the ball in the back of United’s net.
Remember earlier how I said Rojo vs. Lindelöf comes down to two questions? Well if you decide Rojo is ultimately the better player, the second question comes into play. Do you want the best players on the pitch or the best team?
The Lindelöf-Maguire pairing sees Lindelöf playing as the right center half and Maguire on the left. Rojo is left footed, so when he comes into the team Maguire has to move over to the right.
This is where things become problematic. One of the biggest parts of Maguire’s game is his ability to turn inside and fire passes all over the field. It’s one of the reasons Solskjaer valued him so highly and urged United to pay Leicester the £80 million for him. When Maguire moves over to the right he loses that ability and is forced to just play more longer diagonal balls.
That’s a huge loss for United because again, their defenders are tasked with playing a huge role in the buildup to their attacks. Lindelöf’s 0.21 xGBuildup per 90 is 5th on the team. Taking him out, moving Maguire over to a side where he can’t pass as effectively, and inserting Rojo who doesn’t complete his passes, doesn’t sound like a good recipe for a club that already struggles to create goal scoring chances.
There’s also the issue of balance. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka are United’s two best defenders. Playing them both on the right would just overload that side. After United beat Chelsea on the first day of the season, José Mourinho made a comment about how Maguire will need to cover for Luke Shaw too often this season. Whether it’s Shaw, Ashley Young’s lack of pace, or Brandon Williams’ inexperience, United need Maguire to provide cover. Playing him next to Wan-Bissaka on the right leaves the whole left side exposed.
It’s also important to remember, as bad as you might say Lindelöf has been playing this season, United still have the best defense in the league. They’ve conceded the fourth fewest amount of shots this year and the shots they conceded are of very low quality. They still have the lowest expected goals against in the league. Their goals conceded are only so high because of luck and clinical finishing.
There’s not much room to improve on defense. Whether you put in someone more defensive or not, the water is going to find its level here and as long as United keep playing the way they are, the clean sheets will come.
If your defense is that good it only makes sense to stick with the guy who brings more to your attack. After all mistakes do happen and it’d be better to score two goals instead of one just in case.
Inserting Rojo for Lindelöf may make United a slightly better team defensively, but what it takes away from the attack makes them a worse team overall. I’m not saying Lindelöf shouldn’t be dropped. When Axel Tuanzebe comes back, I’m fine playing him over Lindelöf due to his ability to play with the ball at his feet and his defensive capabilities.
But dropping Lindelöf for Marcos Rojo? That weakens the rest of the team too much to make it worthwhile.