This season, one of Manchester United’s biggest struggles came on the defensive end. Their lack of effort on defense, along with a clear lack of talent, was ultimately a catalyst for their disappointing season. With that said, if United is ever going to get back to being successful, the change will have to start on the defensive end.
Despite the lackluster results, Victor Lindelöf still proved to be one of the team’s major bright spots this season. Among the current crop of defenders on the roster, Lindelöf was arguably the most consistent. He put together a solid string of world-class performances, and quickly became a no-brainer choice in the starting XI.
The 24-year-old Swedish defender played in 29 of United’s 38 Premier League games and became a fan favorite with his rugged defensive efforts. His combination of agility, power, and quick thinking allowed him to keep opposing players at bay and cemented him as a necessary piece for United’s future.
While Lindelöf may have made progress this season, United is still in dire need of a partner for him. Both José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried a plethora of pairings alongside Lindelöf throughout the campaign, which included Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, and Chris Smalling, all of which achieved mixed results.
Additionally, it’s important to mention that United’s defense was historically bad this season. The team conceded 54 goals in the Premier League, which is only three goals shy of what they conceded in the 2017/18 and 2016/17 seasons combined. They also only managed a whopping seven (yeap, seven!) clean sheets in 38 Premier League games.
To put that into perspective, Manchester City (it hurts to type this I swear), finished the season with 20 clean sheets and only 23 goals conceded. That’s fewer than half of the goals United conceded.
Ole seemingly tried to address the issue with the players he had, but ultimately didn’t implement a defensive scheme that fixed the constant leaks in defense, managing 5 clean sheets in the 20 Premier League games since he took charge. While Ole’s side had its fair share of impressive wins, the fact that his iteration of the team was unable to consistently keep clean sheets was troublesome.
Nevertheless, Solskjaer should get the benefit of the doubt in this situation, as he was doing his best with a team he didn’t build. This summer, he’ll finally be able to build his own squad, where he’ll have the opportunity to put together a solid defensive unit.
Lindelöf will undoubtedly make up one half of the center-back partnership for Ole next season, but who should be placed alongside him?
The case for Eric Bailly
After a great start to his Manchester United career, Eric Bailly seemingly lost his mojo. Under Mourinho in the 2016/17 season, Bailly was fittingly known to be an impenetrable wall as he became a consistent player at the back. Since then, Bailly has had a string of bad performances and injuries, which has thrusted him deeper into United’s depth chart. Nonetheless, it may not be too late for him to make a comeback, as he clearly has the talent and ability to be good. He may not be a worthy starter as of now, but he’d certainly be a functional rotation player with extreme upside for the foreseeable future if he decides to stick around.
The case for Phil Jones
Just when you think Phil Jones has figured it out, he goes down with an injury. He’s clearly a talented footballer and a functional defender when he’s in form, but he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy for a consistent amount of time. This season, Jones missed significant time due to injury, with an illness keeping him out after playing his best football of the season. He was a pivotal piece throughout the start of Ole’s tenure, as he played 90 minutes in three of United’s five clean sheets under Solskjaer. At the end of the day, Jones at his best still isn’t good enough to be a part of the squad, so I don’t expect him to get significant minutes if he’s still around next season.
The case for Chris Smalling
Without a doubt, Chris Smalling has been United’s second-most consistent player behind Lindelöf. Smalling is capable of being a quality defender (i.e. Chris Smalldini), but is just as capable of making boneheaded mistakes. He was relatively consistent this season, averaging 1.3 tackles, 1.1 interceptions, 4.4 clearances, and an elite 6.46 aerial duels won per game in 24 Premier League games. Smalling has made progress year after year and has made a solid case for being a rotational piece in the squad, but he’s most likely hit his ceiling. United need another world-class center back to help them return to title contention and unfortunately, Smalling just doesn’t fit the bill.
Possible Transfer Targets
Toby Alderweireld (Spurs)
Alderweireld has been linked with United for a couple summers now, and it would come as no surprise if he finally made the jump. He’s a solid player and has very good defensive instincts, which is exemplified by his 2.35 blocks and 4.9 clearances per game. Additionally, he’s posting an 88.5 percent pass completion rate along with 10.65 forward passes a game, making him a formidable ball mover from the back. Nonetheless, at 30 years old, he has limited space for improvement, which could be a possible downside.
Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
Koulibaly is a beast. At 6’5 he is a constant aerial threat, having won 3.25 aerial duels a game in 35 games played this season in the Serie A. He isn’t just impressive physically, he’s also one of the most technically gifted center-backs that world football has to offer. In addition to his superb confidence on the ball, he currently boasts an 88.6 percent pass completion rate, which would be a necessary skill with United’s style of play. In addition, he’s a solid defensive presence, averaging 1.8 tackles and 1.2 interceptions a game in all competitions.
Matthijs De Ligt (Ajax)
De Ligt is certainly the ideal player for United, but he’s currently being courted by every top European team, which could make his path to Manchester unlikely. Nonetheless, the Red Devils should be doing their very best to make sure he’s in a United jersey next season. Per game, he averaged 5.4 aerial duels won, 1.1 tackles, and 1.2 interceptions. Those metrics aren’t even his most impressive, as his ability to get the ball forward would be an asset to United. He averaged 11.53 forward passes a game, with an 88.7 percent pass completion rate. That kind of accuracy and ability to get the ball forward complements United’s style of play, which would make De Ligt the perfect fit in their system. At only 19 years old, De Ligt has already played in a Champions League semi-final and won the Eredivisie. With such sky-high potential, he should be the first person on Ole’s list this summer.
Manchester United have already made it clear that they’re willing to spend big this summer with Ole at the helm. Regardless of who they get, one thing is clear: United should be looking outside of their own ranks for Victor Lindelöf’s partner at the back.
*All stats from WhoScored, Transfermarkt, and Squawka.