Despite spending more than A?100million on attackers these past two seasons, Manchester United’s defence has served as the quiet saviour of the team. Lambasted for it’s inexperience, Manchester United have slowly cultivated a defensive sensibility that has underlined it’s equally tempered rise up the ranks. While they lack a big name leader, United’s back-line is re-establishing it’s reputation, with the onus spread on all four players, rather than a talismanic individual. .
Great attacks win you games, great defences win you the championship.
When Manchester United finished their first half against newly promoted Leicester City early last season, things were finally turning up for Louis van Gaal. By the end of the final whistle, the King Power stadium erupted, Wayne Rooney was left shouting at his players, van Gaal was completely out foxed and the internet had one hell of a field day. United snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and their defence was their primary culprit.
By the turn of the year, however, Manchester United assembled an awkward back four of Valencia, Smalling, Rojo and Blind. At both full back positions, you had players who were used to plying their trade elsewhere. At the centre, you had two players with divergent styles, who had barely played to games together. Somehow, quite peculiarly, it worked. That back four supported by the untempered heroics of goalkeeper David De Gea, ensured that Manchester United had the third best defence in the league, a far cry from the abyss they were in half-way through last season.
With the new season underway, only two players from the aforementioned back-four have retained their starting positions, but oddly, they are working as well, if not better.
Despite missing out on Nicolas Otamendi and Pedro, Manchester United have made some smart and understated signings who will prove to be more effective than their price tag may suggest. Schweinsteiger might have turned 31 this year, but buying a player of his undeniable talent, experience, and leadership for somewhere in the region of A?14million might prove to be a master stroke. One look at Darmian’s form so far makes one wonder how United pried him from Torino for a meager A?12million, even though he is a regular starter for his national team. Morgan Schneiderlin, though bought for a fair A?25million, is the type of player that every championship winning side needs. Following their 3-1 victory over Club Brugge, some sections of the fans feel that United have assembled a title winning side, however, they still have a long way to go if they are to win the league.
a GHOST OF TRAFFORD (@GhostOfTrafford) August 17, 2015
The path, however, is much shorter than it was the previous season.
Since November of last year, Manchester United have conceded the fewest number of goals of any Premier League team. David De Gea and his saves did play a pivotal part, but United’s consistency and organisation in defense was imperative to the formation of any sort of attack. A retrospective of United’s run of form in the penultimate games of the Premier League shows De Gea making more mistakes than usual.
United’s defense thus far has served as the most apt exemplification of van Gaal’s changing ‘philosophy’. It initially comprised of a back 5 based system, then a back 3, before a final reversion to a back 4. Most of the changes were made, however, out of necessity and not choice. The likes of Patrick McNair, Tyler Blackett, and Antonio Valencia were played due to a unmitigated injury disaster. It was bound to fail, and it did. In typical United fashion, however, the defence repaired itself, came back, and gave Manchester United a semblance of a spine that they had greatly lacked.
Chris Smalling’s resurgence has been instrumental
The key architect of such a change, was former Fulham centre half Chris Smalling.
The Emirates Stadium clash was noteworthy for the return of Chris Smalling to the side since the derby day debacle. Despite a hysterical over-reaction to the sending-off, van Gaal showed his faith in the centre-back by not only handing him an instant recall after his ban but also lining him up alongside rookies Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair in a three-man defence.
The Arsenal game was just the start for Smalling, as he continually stifled the most imposing of forwards in the Premier League with an air of authority, sorely lacking at Manchester United. His own development came full circle against Manchester City, where his closing down of Silva and Aguero, combined with a match winning goal, heralded the return of the player that many wanted out in the fixture’s reverse. More recently, the 25-year-old bullied the Club Brugge attackers for 90 minutes in midweek in a manner Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic have done in the past, and has been a dominant force in ensuring no opposing player has hit the United net yet this season.
The England stopper nullified the obvious threat of Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane magnificently on the opening day and was just as imposing at Aston Villa. Even when Tim Sherwood threw on Rudy Gestede, somebody with a reputation for being fearsome in the air, Smalling visibly accepted the fresh challenge from the first ball launched towards the Benin international.
In an interview with ESPNFC, former Manchester United defender David May remarked that the England International has made himself one of United’s key players.
“Chris Smalling has established himself as United’s number one centre-half,” noted May. “He’s become a leader. He’s very quick, brings the ball out well and very rarely gets done by an opponent. I thought he finished last season well and any doubts I had about him being a bit timid went. He’s strong, brave, reads the game intelligently and brings balance. I really think Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of him.”
United legend Rio Ferdinand too offered his sterling seal of approval, remarking that it was near impossible to beat Smalling when he was on ‘Beast Mode’ adding further that ‘He just wants to defend, take people out of the way, push people out’.
Daley Blind, for all the flak surrounding his deployment at centre-half, has done exactly what’s expected of him- position smartly, distribute, and defend. During United’s pre-season, one would assume that between Phil Jones and Daley Blind, the former would eclipse the latter with ease. However, against Barcelona and PSG, Blind proved exactly why there is a role for him in the team. Blind’s banking on timely distribution and tactical awareness, as opposed to speed and brute force, make him the near perfect foil to Smalling.
During United’s successful run toward the season’s end, Blind performed remarkable at right back, defending with diligence while outfoxing defenders in the opposition.
At centre-back, Blind has the ability and potential to mature into a centre half quickly. At Ajax he had been deployed at centre-back, though in fairness, Blind has the smarts to ply many defensive positions to a respectable extent.
United’s investment in Luke Shaw, and the coup of Matteo Darmian, have given the club two capable and mobile full-backs. A large amount of Manchester United’s defensive errors came down to centre-backs being stretched too wide due to full-backs that had neglected their defensive duties. As a result, incoming crosses were dealt with remarkable ease.
With the entry of Shaw and Darmian, United’s centre-backs have less responsibility for other tasks, and can focus completely on their primary ones. Against Tottenham, on the opening matchday, apart from a Cristian Eriksen chance, United’s back four worked to mechanical perfection, rendering the Spurs attack mute.
Morgan Schneiderlin – The silent guardian?
Perhaps the most understated figure in United’s new found defensive sense has been Morgan Schneiderlin. Pried from Southampton’s grasp for a fair A?25million, the Frenchman has done exactly what United have purchased him for. His ability to both shield the back four, and break opposition play (with remarkable pace) has added immensely to United’s back line. More over, he ensures that Michael Carrick’s defensive duties are shared, enabling the Englishman to influence the game further forward.
There is a continuity in a defence containing Matteo Darmian, Smalling, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw that was often missing last term in a campaign blighted by injury problems, particularly in the early months. Louis van Gaal’s emphasis on fitness and diligence have slighted United’s attack, yet strengthened their defensive resolve. Against Villa, and Club Brugge, both full backs have tempered their propensity to overlap as van Gaal has kept defensive stability as his number one priority.
Wayne Rooney and his failure to score goals will still dominate headlines, but as he falters in front of goal, Manchserer United’s back line are repairing their own reputation while strengthening that of the clubs. From a silly joke this time last year, Manchester United’s defence has been it’s saviour on more than one ocassion. In the early stages of the season, scoring goals is not vital, preventing them from being scored is and Manchester United have prevented the opposition from scoring a single one thus far.
While the season maybe only three games in, United’s back four coupled with Romero and Schneiderlin have each pulled their weight to ensure that the defensive responsibility lies with each individual, as much as the whole unit. Building early momentum is vital to a club hitting form. As long as United’s defense keeps the goals out, that early momentum will come, however unflattering the scoreline.
It isn’t pretty, but it’s effective, and a good defense is imperative to the formation of any semblance of attack.