Patrice Evra: Calling Time Too Soon on Manchester United's Flying Fullback?
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United's vice captain may be 31, but he shows few signs of losing his legs at the moment. Unless of course you count the times when he has been on attack and is the last man back in defence.
The most notable occasion was against Manchester City in the 6-1 thrashing last season. For at least four of the goals, Evra was left stranded upfield as City scored. Was this down to fitness or over-commitment in pursuit of goals?
Irrespective, for most of the last year or more, Patrice has been United's acting captain and has a responsibility for the ultimate result on the pitch. With the greater leaking of goals this season, has he sometimes got the balance wrong between attack and defence?
Background and early career
Patrice, or "Paddy" as he is sometimes called, started life as an attacking player, scoring six times in 27 matches for his first team, Marsala.
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He returned to France, joining French League Two side Nice, for whom he played on the left wing. At the start of the 2001-2002 season, he had to deputise after an injury to the club's left back and the manager made him a fixture there.
So in some ways it is hardly surprising that he sometimes reverts to type. He had even played centre forward for Nice so maybe history goes in cycles as he is having his most productive goal-scoring season for 14 years.
Alexander Buttner is the most obvious candidate to succeed Evra and he also started life in an attacking role. That is an entirely suitable path for the modern wing back.
Patrice should probably have had more caps for France, based on his ability. He is similar in style to the Brazil and Real Madrid left back Marcelo. In fact, Evra started international life as a left wing as well.
Unfortunately, despite having captained his national side, he had previously missed the 2006 World Cup and his appearances overall have been sporadic. Eric Abidal was in his way at first, but then Evra bore the brunt for the players' protest at the 2010 World Cup.
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While Laurent Blanc is no longer French manager, Didier Deschamps is credited with making Evra the left wing back he is, at Monaco. However, Sir Alex probably wouldn't object if he was never called up again.
Who are the younger pretenders?
There are several possibilities within the club, the most obvious being Alex Buttner, but Fabio will be in contention on his return from QPR.
There are curious rumours about Buttner being sent on loan next season. Does this mean that Sir Alex is looking for one last year out of Evra before he finally hangs up his boots or moves on?
Or is the stale rumour of Leighton Baines being signed going to come to fruition in the summer, if not before?
Baines is already 28, but he is the best left back in Europe this season, based on his overall statistics. He would slot in seamlessly as soon as Paddy stepped aside.
There are also several youngsters within the club who could be good enough to step up in the future, if not into the first team immediately, then certainly into a support role.
It seems clear that Sir Alex had every intention of signing someone like Buttner when he decided to send Fabio out on loan. By the summer, the manager will have had a good look at Buttner and the options available.
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The obvious one mentioned above is that Evra stays as first choice next season. In which case, Fabio would be a good deputy and Buttner could go on loan. If Baines were signed, presumably Evra would be released and a similar scenario would apply.
Alternatively, Fabio or Buttner could be rotated as first choice, with Evra held in reserve. That would not suit the Frenchman, and there would be no shortage of offers from elsewhere.
Of the younger players, Tyler Blackett has been tried previously but has had an inauspicious year in the Under 21s. He should definitely be sent on loan. Michael Keane has played left back but should be preserved as a centre back or right back.
Sean McGinty potentially looks a better prospect than Blackett in the longer term. At least it won't be Robbie Brady filling the slot, as he has been sold to Hull City.
Calling time too soon
Evra is intelligent, forthright and a leader in the dressing room. Sometimes the example he sets on the pitch has been a little too adventurous, but he seems to have learned from that.
In addition, Sir Alex has tweaked the defence, so that if one wing back is up the pitch, the other stays back, to avoid episodes like the debacle against City. He has also successfully deployed Young, Cleverley, Rooney and even Welbeck to cover off Evra's runs if necessary.
Maybe between them, the Boss and his vice-captain have found the right balance. Patrice is scoring at a rate that is unparalleled in his career and he only approached as an attacker in his early years.
He is also, for his height and in general, arguably second only to Nemanja Vidic as a header of the ball, despite being much shorter.
Patrice Evra is one of the fittest players at United. He has also had more appearances than any other player in the last six seasons, averaging almost 50 matches per term.
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He would still make a more than useful wide left player, so that is a possible future for his golden years. When he is on attack with the ball, he can be as good as any wing back in the world.
Yes, he has defensive frailties and his concentration wanders sometimes, but he still has that "X Factor" that can surprise and delight the fans and produce a winning moment out of nothing.
If Sir Alex is truly committed to the attacking football that is United's hallmark, even at the expense of a few more goals conceded, then Paddy still fits the bill.
Even his most fierce critics will miss him when he is gone. Denis Irwin he may not be, but a combination of the two would have been the greatest left back of all time.
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