Daley Blind is in something of a slump, after performing ahead of expectations at centre-back for Manchester United for much of the season.
The first obvious signs of a dip in form came in his performance against Watford on March 3—of which more later—and there have been several incidents since that suggest this particular slump is ongoing.
In truth this is a difficult season in which to assess the performance of United's centre-backs. First off, while there has often been a settled central-defensive partnership, playing for the most part in front of the same goalkeeper, the back four has regularly changed due to the many injuries the squad has suffered at full-back.
Secondly, the period in which they performed best saw them given an enormous amount of protection by the structure of the team. United's dullest period of the season coincided with their most defensively effective. Of the 20 clean sheets the Red Devils have kept this season, seven have come in 0-0 draws and six have come in 1-0 wins—a tight defence has usually meant sacrificing attacking effectiveness.
Nonetheless, throughout the early part of the season both Blind and Chris Smalling rightly attracted plaudits. This was especially notable in Blind's case, given his lack of top-level experience at centre-half.
Barring the 2-1 loss away to Swansea—back when the Swans were in considerably better form than has been the norm for their season—Blind was pretty mistake-free.
The manner in which his recent slump arrived was jarring. It was not the lack of speed or power that many had feared would be his undoing at centre-back that let him down. Rather it was his normally reliable passing.
His pass-completion percentage across Premier League and European games this season is 83.7 per cent. Against Watford, that number dropped to 67 per cent. Earlier in the season, he regularly completed more than 90 per cent of his passes in games—96 per cent against Aston Villa, 94 versus Newcastle, 97 away at Southampton and 91 at home against Sunderland, for example.
It was not just that his passing was inaccurate, though, but that it was dangerously so. Blind offered presentable chances to the Hornets' forwards. Were it not for a combination of opposition profligacy and David De Gea, his mistakes could have been much more heavily punished.
One of those mistakes was heavily punished against West Bromwich Albion. It feels harsh to pick apart a moment's indecision, but nonetheless, the margins in professional sport are fine, and it was a moment's indecision that cost United. As the ball came in for Salomon Rondon's goal, he was Blind's man, but with an outstretched arm, the Dutchman handed him off and retreated to a deeper position.
Only, there was no one to hand him off to.
Blind retreated, leaving Rondon in a metaphorical acre of space, unchallenged as he headed the ball home. It was not a mistake of physicality, but of decision-making.
Samuel Luckhurst of Manchester Evening News suggested Blind needed a rest after the Watford game. He wrote, "The fatigue was etched on his face so prominently at Watford he might have been drenched more by sweat than rain."
Van Gaal agreed, saying, per Manchester Evening News:
I have to rotate him because he is very tired. When (Marcos) Rojo is fit again I can rotate him so I hope we can sustain this.
But I give him a lot of time free from the training sessions. I recover him more than other players because I have to.
Rojo is back, but there has been no rest for Blind. The evidence that it is still needed remains. Against Liverpool, he completed just 64 per cent of his first-half passes when playing at centre-back. That improved considerably in the second half once he had been switched to left wing-back, from where he completed 17 of his 21 attempted passes, but nonetheless highlighted that the problem has not gone away.
Against West Ham United, Luckhurst described Blind as having been "bullied."
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Varela was excellent but Daley Blind was bullied against West Ham #mufc https://t.co/AllDrMUBCk2016-3-13 20:20:06
Although tiredness may be at the heart of this slump, there is a broader inevitability to it based on his relative unsuitability for the role he is being asked to play.
The West Brom mistake was emblematic of this—it was a basic, rudimentary defensive error, the kind that is honed out of the best players by a career spent playing the position.
He has done a more than passable impression of a centre-back for much of the season, and Van Gaal should be grateful to Blind's versatility. However, following a campaign-long experiment, it has become clear that the Dutchman should be a back-up option at centre-back rather than first-choice there.
He has done well, but not well enough make the position his own for the long run.
All advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.