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Despite finishing with an 11-point gap between themselves and second-placed rivals Manchester City, while the goal difference itself—43, the highest in the league—makes for comforting reading, Manchester United and David Moyes will be well aware that was mostly down to the forwards.
Naturally, having Robin van Persie is a blessing for any manager, and the fact that the Dutchman scored over a quarter of his side’s league goals is not as worrying as it may seem—take away his 26, and United still have the seventh-highest tally in the Premier League. But at the other end of the field, in several different ways, the situation is not so ideal.
Moyes has already begun to address the back four with his recent signing of Guillermo Varela as understudy to the ever-improving Rafael, but is it enough, or will there be more bolstering work done over the next couple of months?
Rafael is basking in the warm afterglow of his best season to date, which saw him notch three goals and four assists in the league, the highlight being a brilliantly struck shot from outside the area against Queens Park Rangers. The low point unfortunately came in what turned out to be his final game of the season, when a loss of temper brought about an unnecessary kick on Chelsea’s David Luiz with a resulting red card.
However, while the young Brazilian is far better defensively than he was two or three seasons ago, there are some underlying stats that will cause his manager some concern. Out of 28 league starts in 2012-13 for Rafael, United conceded at least two goals nine times; in the 10 games he didn’t play there were only two in which they conceded twice or more, one of which was the end-of-season 5-5 thriller against West Bromwich Albion when United had already secured the title.
It's obvious from the signing of Varela that Moyes does not see Phil Jones or Chris Smalling as suitable deputies at right-back, but, with a bare minimum of playing experience behind him, no matter how many plaudits fly in, the Uruguayan youngster is not yet the answer.
While Rafael has shown that he can play 40 games a season, if not more, United can’t account for injury, and if the 22-year-old were laid off for a few weeks they would need a capable understudy to call on. Jones and Smalling have both shown their adeptness at right-back, but Jones is viewed by many (including himself) as destined to sit at the heart of the defence, while Smalling has proved somewhat injury-prone.
This is where the experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic come into play, with the defenders aged 34 and 31 years old respectively.
If, as expected, Varela is sent out on loan next season, then Jones or Smalling will be forced to deputise in the event of Rafael getting injured, as Marnick Vermijl is looking increasingly like a fringe player who will be moved on sooner rather than later.
Obviously there is the benefit of making the young Englishmen into more versatile players, but if Jones, as thought, is to end up at centre-back, then surely both he and Ferdinand are at the ages where one should be slowly replacing the other?
It’s all very well having a good repertoire of positions, but Jones should be careful that he doesn’t fall victim to the “jack of all, master of none” syndrome. Despite Jones being the better player, Jonny Evans currently looks the most likely to partner Vidic once Ferdinand’s late rush of form withers or his age catches up, for the simple reason that Evans has more experience in the role and performed solidly throughout the season while Jones was busy being switched between defence and midfield.
So when Ferdinand retires in the next year or so, even if Evans becomes the first-choice centre-back alongside Vidic, there is still the inevitable drop in form and ability that will strike the Serbian over the course of the next two or three seasons to worry about. Smalling’s regular injury problems are why it’s important to focus on preparing Jones for a career at centre-back as thoroughly as possible, before it’s too late.
In that respect, the signing of Varela is a good move, but if he goes out on loan—unless there is someone else on the horizon—Moyes will be very reliant on Rafael and risk stunting the development of Jones as a centre-back if the Brazilian gets injured.
But what about the left side of defence, which has been dominated by Patrice Evra for the past six years but is now in uncertainty as the French international reached the age of 32 last month?
Firstly, although he is returning from a season loan at QPR, Fabio will be very fortunate to make next season’s squad.
The twin brother of Rafael did make 21 league appearances last season, but the manner in which he made them is not quite so encouraging, and his performances even less so. After starting the first three games of the season under Mark Hughes—which saw QPR concede nine goals—he picked up a hamstring injury during the fourth, and on his return he couldn’t really establish himself under Harry Redknapp, with seven of his remaining 16 appearances under the new manager coming from the bench.
Back in Manchester, it is hard to tell if Alexander Buttner looks more promising, though on what we’ve seen he does appear to be a more rounded player than Fabio.
The 24-year-old made a sublime start to his Manchester United career, with a decent performance topped off by a scintillating goal during his debut match against Wigan, though he didn’t really build on that, making only 13 first-team appearances in 2012-13. Granted, Patrice Evra's form was unquestionably good last season, and Buttner's two goals in five league games is an excellent ratio for a defender, but don’t expect it to become a regular occurrence.
However, if Buttner’s strength is going forward, then his weakness is definitely his defensive positioning, which was often put to the question, especially in—albeit academic—Champions League games against Galatasary and CFR Cluj.
In summary, if Patrice Evra had not recovered from his dire run of form in time for last season, then United would have had the impossible dilemma of either playing an experienced left-back who was badly out of sorts, or an inexperienced left-back whose performances could go either way—not the depth in talent we have come to expect from the title-holders. That, and the 43 league goals conceded could have been far more.
And as long as Evra keeps playing like he is, Buttner will have his work cut out trying to showcase and develop his talents, which could have a detrimental effect once Evra retires and Buttner faces the prospect of having to step up as first-choice left-back. But the idea of Moyes allowing that to happen is fairly inconceivable, which makes the signing of Leighton Baines or another top left-back this summer or the next seem more plausible.
Back on the right side, Rafael has shown that he has a special quality and should be allowed to retain his role as first-choice right-back, but this presents a headache for the manager: He could send Varela out on loan and risk having to call on either Jones or Smalling as deputies and hypothetically hinder their long-term development as centre-backs. Alternatively, he could keep Varela as the understudy, which would naturally deprive the 20-year-old of the regular game time he needs to reach his full potential.
With all these issues to resolve, if there’s one thing that Moyes doesn’t have, it’s an easy first summer at his new club. Oh, and then there’s the simple matters of the midfield and Wayne Rooney situations to sort out.
Good luck then, old sport, good luck.
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