United are on a real resurgence at the moment. Oli Gunnar Solskjaer has just broken an English record for the first manager to win his first 5 games with a +2 goal advantage in each game. A strange record broken but it is still impressive nevertheless. United are currently attacking better, moving the ball faster and overall look happier. It wasn’t going to take a master tactician to improve United. They just needed a coach who was going to make the players happy, and not alienate half the squad with pointless masculinity tests. Ever since Solskjaer has arrived, Pogba has gone into supernova, and putting in some of the best performances of his career, Rashford is looking like the striker I never thought he could be, and even Matic is looking competent again. But one area that needs changing no matter what happens in the next 5 months is the defence. United’s pool of defenders just isn’t good enough. Even looking at last season, United might have kept the most clean sheets, but that wasn’t down to the defenders and the way United sat back. It was down to David De Gea having the best season a goalkeeper had ever had. Now that De Gea has came back to earth, it has exposed United’s defence to being average at best. It’s time for this back-line to get reshuffled, whether it’s now or in the summer. Let’s look at the players currently at the club, and go on to see where they need to improve.
A player who didn’t exactly start his United career off in the best of ways, making an awful mistake to gift Huddersfield with a huge win over the Red Devils. After the occasional start last season, he has truly shown why United spent so much money on a relatively unknown player. You just have to look at his man of the match display against Newcastle. He was so calm on the ball, which is a massive boost for United, having a defender who doesn’t look so nervy whenever the ball is near his feet. He has shades of Alderweireld in the way he distributes the ball. He created 2 chances against Newcastle. That is crazy considering he is a centre back! He suits exactly what you United thrive to be. The biggest issue is his aerial ability. It’s a problem that just cannot be avoided. While he can read the game relatively well, he just struggles when balls are played in the air. This can be seen from his aerial with percentage. While elite defenders like Van Dijk and Sergio Ramos win 71% and 70% respectively, Lindelof wins 57%. It’s a clear weakness to a player with a very good skill set. Not only is he staying, but he has to start.
Conclusion – Starts Every Game!
While Lindelof started poorly and came into his own, Bailly has almost went into reverse. He was signed almost out of no where, only being at Villarreal for less than 2 years, before making a big £30m move to United back in 2016. I had no idea what to expect, but in his first 2 months, I was incredibly impressed. His composure, speed, aggression and intelligence made him stand out among a group of defenders with zero ability on the ball. However injuries arrived. From memory I remember one during United’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, which kept him out for a couple of weeks, and in his second season he missed most of the winter period again, coming back to rescue United against Liverpool. While his recklessness can let him down, as seen against Bournemouth. He barely gets dribbled past, wins a majority of his tackles, and is great when needing to make a recovery tackle. He’s still only 24. I would definitely keep him around, and hope he can regain the form that looked so promising when he arrived.
Conclusion – Keep as a squad player
An ever present under every manager since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Smalling has been able to keep his place in the side, based on bring the best out of a bad bunch. He excelled under Louis Van Gaal, with the Dutchman’s style and set up massively protecting Smalling. Soon as he was given as much protection under Mourinho, he was massively exposed for his inability to deal with small agile players, like Hazard and Sterling, who can run circles around him. He is great at dealing with aerial threats, but that’s it. He can’t distribute effectively and is getting too old to be able to learn more. While he could be a decent squad player, it’s time for this club to finally grow a pair, and not settle for average. I wouldn’t be surprised if a team in the lower half of the table would be interested.
Conclusion – Sell
Injuries, clumsiness, slow, dangerous. Just some of the words to describe Phil Jones. I would go into detail but by now it’s so obvious she should be sold.
Conclusion – SELL IMMEDIATELY
Another who was plagued by injuries. He was a player I wanted gone from United after his first season. He was just a defensive nightmare throughout his time under LVG. It included the worst left back I’ve ever seen. After Shaw’s leg break, Rojo filled in at left back for a majority of the season, and was just awful. Truly, truly awful. He did have a very good debut season under Mourinho, including an incredible performance at home against Spurs. But I just think he’s a liability in the squad. His injuries and mistakes mean he cannot remain in Manchester. I would sell him January for anyone who would be slightly interested.
Conclusion – Sell immediately
Who a small majority of you are asking? Well Tuanzebe is a current prospect who is on loan at Aston Villa. Many Villa fans have been heaping praise on the young defender, for his calmness on the ball and his maturity at such a young age. I can completely understand where they are coming from. Every time I’ve seen him play I notice just how cool and relaxed he looks. He can read the game well and is a very good distributor of the ball. He is completing the most passes for Aston Villa with 49. However he has a similar problem as Lindelof, he just isn’t great in the air. He is playing in a league where a majority of the times do play it high, which is going to make it more difficult for him. He is still only making 2.1 tackles and interceptions per 90, which seeing as he ranks high in his defensive actions, is more of a sign of the team he’s playing for. He is definitely not going out on loan next season, and with Bailly being consistent with injuries, he could be useful to come in during the busy winter period. I’m unsure if he would want that role though.
Conclusion – Keep as a back up
After going through the current crop of players, it’s c lear that with the average age of the remaining players being 23, it’s clear some experience is definitely needed. While having such young talent is useful, some of these players still need guidance and a leader beside them, to bring the best out of them. Another quality that is definitely needed is some aerial dominance. As mentioned, Lindelof and Tuanzebe both aren’t great in the air, and need a player who can deal with that threat. They also need to have some ability on the ball, as seen with my criticism of Smalling and Jones. These are a lot of criteria’s to fill here. Not all will fill them, but a couple definitely will. Let’s go through them, from best fit, to some good options.
When Liverpool signed Virgil Van Dijk last year, it was seen as a genius bit of business. Van Dijk was the definition of a defender at his peak. He has everything to succeed at the top level, having an amazing range of passing, superiority in the air, able to read the game well and is even very useful at set pieces. While I would love to argue that Liverpool have been pretty lucky this season to even be at the top of the table, Van Dijk has still been a massive improvement at Merseyside. I bring this up because I thnk Kalidou Koulibaly would have a very similar impact.
The Senegalese international’s rise to the top as been a great story. He began his career playing in the second division of French football, playing for Metz. He was only 18 at the time, but he went on to start 16 games, and then 21 in the following season. He only stayed for 2 seasons, signing for Genk in 2012 for £1.1m. He then went on to further establish himself in Belgium, putting in some very good performances in the Europa League. He made 7 appearances in the 2013/14 season, and put in some great performances in their run to the round of 32, after losing to FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Koulibaly put in 5.3 tackles and interceptions, made 4.3 clearances and 2.4 aerial duels. He was only 21 at the time. They were great signs of a player with plenty of potential.
His time at Napoli can only be seen as an absolute success. His first season was under Rafa Benitez, a season where he performed very well. Even though he was playing for a better side, he still managed to have better defensive numbers, was barely getting dribbled past and his pass numbers truly started to blossom. He finally started to show why Napoli seemed to think he was ready for the big stage. After Benitez departed for Madrid, Maurizio Sarri arrived. This was the start of all the praise the defender began to receive. He fitted a difficult and demanding system perfectly. He was fast and strong enough to be able to deal with the constant counter attacks Napoli would face, due to their players being so high up the pitch. It also helped that he is an excellent distributor. This season, the defender has been averaging 4.9 long balls per game, with only Raul Albiol beating that. It shows how good is range of passing is, helping his side keep hold of the ball, and allow their midfielders to receive the ball at higher areas of the pitch. It’s an essential quality to have in a defender in the modern game, giving more flexibility in how to approach different games.
He adds that high level in defence to a United side in desperate need of it. His presence and ability will not only improve the team, but improve the players around him. Those incredibly close games, like that game against Tottenham, would have been so close. United face way too many shots. With the likes of Huddersfield, Crystal Palace and Wolves all facing less shots than the Red Devils. They are allowing their opponents to create chances in good areas. Having better players does help to fix this. It will allow the manager to approach games with less fear, because they have defenders who aren’t going to be caught out and allow the opposition players to take advantage of it. Koulibaly is at an elite stage and is in his prime years. While £95 million is a lot for any player, if they can get him, they should.
While this may seem boring, it just has to be done. United’s long chase for the Belgian has became tiring at this point, and while discussing him might be a bit safe, it’s easy to forget why the Red Devils wanted Alderweireld so badly.
I like to think of Alderweireld as the worst mistake made by Atletico Madrid and in maybe Southampton to an extent. Back in 2014, fresh after winning La Liga and reaching a Champions League final, Alderweireld was sent out on loan to Southampton. It’s easy to see why however, with the Belgian only starting 10 games in the league that season. Atletico had the best defence in Europe that season, with Godin and Miranda forming an aggressive and tough defence, one that Alderweireld just couldn’t fit into. In hindsight, leaving the club was definitely the best idea. He isn’t a player who is fantastic in the air, or never put in massive tackle and interception numbers. He didn’t fit the Simeone system, and it was time to move to a club that fitted his style.
His arrival in the South of England was one of many smart deals done by Southampton that year. The sales of Lovren, Lallana, Shaw, Lambert and Chambers gave them plenty of cash to splash in the market, and replaced them very adequately, and in some cases, improved them. Sadio Mané and Dusan Tadic were brought to add some creativity and flair to a side that just lost its best attacker in Lallana. Bertrand arrived from Chelsea to fill in at left back, and became a very good player in the process, and Pelle and Long arrived to fight for a place upfront. They took players from all over the continent, in a bid to outsmart some of the clubs at the higher end of the table. By Christmas, Southampton were 2nd in the table, and their smart business practices seemed to have paid off.
Alderweireld was one of the highlights here. His distribution and reading of the game made for a perfect partner to the more aggressive Jose Fonte. At the time, many saw Fonte as the superior player. His numbers show that, making 5.3 tackles and interceptions and making 5.5 clearances. But now thanks to hindsight, it’s clear to see that Alderweireld was given his teammate the freedom to be doing all of the destroyer work. Alderweireld might have been putting in less defensive work (Fonte also had the advantage of playing more games. 37 to to his teammates 26), he was completing more long balls and was giving away less fouls. There are usually two types of defenders. The more aggressive type, like a Chiellini or Ramos. These are players who will rush out and put pressure on the attackers. The sweepers have to fill in for the space that the destroyers leave behind. David Luiz, Gerard Pique and of course, Toby Alderweireld all fill this quota. They are the more intelligent players usually, and are key to a defence functioning. It puts less pressure on their partners, knowing that if they fail to make the challenge, someone will be there to make the recovery tackle. It was no surprise that after Alderweireld left the club to return to Atletico Madrid, Fonte was never able to recapture this career high.
His first season at Tottenham was simply outstanding. He played all 38 games, registering 4 goals and 2 assists. The curious question is how did a central defender get 2 assists? Well this leads into Alderweireld’s best quality, his passing. The 30 year old has arguably the best passing ability out of any centre back in Europe. Both of his assists that season came from balls right over the top to Dele Alli, landing straight to his feet, gifting him a chance at goal. This exact move happened twice, and it shows why he became so valuable. Before his arrival in the 2015, Spurs’s defence was seen as a massive weakness. During the 2014/15 season, Tottenham conceded the 5th most goals in the league with 58, more than the likes of Sunderland and Burnley, who were relegated that season. After Alderweireld arrived, they conceded the joint least amount of goals with 35. This could be down to Pochettino just improving his team and improving in all departments, but Alderweireld still deserves plenty of credit. His calmness and great reason of the game gave Vertonghen, Rose and Walker more freedom in a way. Rose and Walker didn’t have to worry as much in a defensive sense, giving them a licence to attack without having to worry about being caught out by opposing winger. While the England pair did get plenty of benefits with Alderweireld’s arrival, it was Vertonghen who gained the biggest boost. This wasn’t the first time they have played together. Both play for Belgium and they also played for Ajax in their younger days. Their time in North London together created one of the best defensive partnerships in recent memory. This isn’t to discredit Vertonghen in any way. He is one of a very small group to win player of the month as a defender. He was finally given a competent partner in defence, who would allow him to not worry when he steps put to intercept the ball. One player was able to bring the best out of an entire defence, and Alderweireld deserves all the credit for that.
I bring all of this up because they all back up exactly what he would offer to United. Whether it’s Solsjkaer or Pochettino managing the club next season, they need a leader and a great distributor. Alderweireld ticks all of these boxes very effectively. He will give not only his defensive partner (most likely Lindelof) a calmer and experienced head beside him, but will give the full backs the reassurance to bomb forward, and finally get to good positions to support the forwards. There is a problem here however. The first being his age. Alderweireld is now 30, putting him in a position where improving is unlikely, and declining is very unlikely. You don’t know how some players adapt as they age. Will they stay consistent in some cases improve, like Chiellini and Xavi, or decline at a rapid pace, like Ferdinand or Iniesta. Spending money on an older player is always a risk, but this actually brings into the next positive. The Belgian will be available for only £25 million. Even if there is a chance he will decline, you hope by then the younger players will be ready to step up. Alderweireld might not be my first choice, but I would have no issue with him playing at Old Trafford, but there are definitely better options now.
Onto a player who has only recently became a possible option, Manolas has became a very good defender during his time in the Italian capital. While he wouldn’t be my first choice, I would have zero complaints if he was brought in. His time at Roma has largely been a success. He arrived in Rome with a lot of pressure, with Manolas arriving to replace outgoing defender Medhi Benatia. Benatia was one of the best players in Italy that season, and losing him was problematic. He was signed for £10 million from Olympiacos. Looking back now it can be seen as a real bargain. He was also heavily linked to Arsenal before moving to Serie A, showing how he had impressed more than his current club. It was his displays the 2014 World Cup that got the attention of some big clubs in Europe. Greece weren’t exactly impressive in that tournament, but he was still able to make a very good impression. His very traditional, physical style of defending is one reason why many clubs were so interested. He arrived that just after the World Cup, playing under Rudi Garcia for 2 years. Roma were runners up in both of those seasons, and Manolas was a key figure during those very good finishes. His great interception numbers showed why he is considered such a good player. It’s by far the best part of the game. He was making 2.5 interceptions per 90, with only the late Davide Astori making more. Manolas also made 30 appearances that season, more than any other defender. He quickly showed himself to be the most reliable defender in this side.
This form continued under their next manager Luciano Spaletti. The current Inter manager highly favoured Manolas, to the extent of trying to sign when he became the new Inter manager back in 2017. He said:
“I want Manolas to stay at AS Roma, I’ve told him already. He is physically and mentally very strong. He arrives everywhere on the pitch, sometimes he exaggerates with sliding tackles.”
Roma were one of the most fun sides in Europe in that final season under Spaletti. Many players in that side, like Nainggolan, Salah and Dzeko went supernova. While Manolas wasn’t nearly as good as his attacking teammates, it was still arguably one of his better seasons. It did help that his defensive partner this season, Federico Fazio was having the best season of his career. Roma were also very flexible this season, playing 3-4-2-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. It shows that Manolas is very adaptable. Koulibaly has predominantly played a 4-3-3 during his time in Napoli. When you have a player who has had a history of playing in different systems, it helps with whatever the manager wants to do going into individual games. If it was Pochettino coming in, he would like to have someone like Manolas. The current Tottenham manager who has previously fiddled with different systems and formations, makes players who can quickly learn these systems, would be massively beneficial.
While my first preference for a central defender would be Kalidou Koulibaly, I would have no problem with the Greek international coming in. It does seem like he does want to leave the club, with Manolas being increasingly close to leaving back in 2017, with Zenit coming very close. He doesn’t have long left on his contract, which explains why his release clause is only £32 million. The problem is that this release clause doesn’t actually activate until the summer. His agent is also Mino Riola. The man has had an involvement in many recent Manchester United deals, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. Dealing with him is a problem, and he famously will rinse your club for all he can. I just look at that pricetag and think it’s too hard to pass up on. Transfermarkt value him at £40.50 million and they usually value players in their twenties quite accurately (Potential isn’t usually considered and instead only look at what they’ve done). He would definitely improve Manchester United.
With the 3 more experiences players done, let’s at younger options. If the club do not want to invest heavily in players who do not have a high resell value (even if this model can be frustrating at times). Lets start with Milan Skriniar. The Slovakian originated from Sampdoria’s young talent machine, which includes Patrick Schick, Lucas Torreira and Mustafi all being some high profile sales. With the last 3 players, there were clear reasons for why these players were signed. Koulibaly, Alderweireld and Manolas all showed their talent at their previous clubs, but Skriniar is different. He was apart of a very average Sampdoria side, and the Slovakian defender wasn’t exactly stand out in his final season. He is was only putting in 2.2 tackles and interceptions per 90, and putting in 1.4 aerial duels. These aren’t stand out in the slightest, but the problem is defenders are very difficult to judge from numbers. Midfielders are simpler because you can see what kind of midfielders they are just by seeing what their numbers show. Defenders can be in different systems so tackle and interceptions are useful, but don’t tell the whole story. There were still other parts of his game that were very impressive. He was an excellent distributor. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any of his teammates with 91%, and was fourth for his side in passes completed. He was great when bringing the ball out from the back (the theme of all the players on this list). He wasn’t spectacular, but showed enough promise to earn a move to Inter Milan the following summer.
During his time at Inter Milan, he shown himself to be one of the best defenders in Serie A. His signing made so much sense at the time. Miranda wasn’t getting any younger, and he needed a partner who was younger and more athletic. Miranda’s defensive numbers dropped massively during Skriniar’s first season, going from 4.9 to 2.7. This is because Skriniar seemed be given the more aggressive role, with the Slovakian committing more fouls and winning more tackles than he was at Sampdoria. Miranda had a more reserved role, to help allow Skriniar to play with more confidence, to not have to worry about making mistakes, when he has one of the best defenders of the last 10 years beside him.
It does open up a very good question. Is he ready to be the leader of a title challenging team? A reason why he has excelled is because he has had an experienced head like Miranda next to him. United do not have that luxury. The club have 2 young defenders, who both would excel if they had a top level defender beside them. Skriniar is younger than Bailly and Lindelof, so is he ready to be the main man? I would say he is. Skriniar has the most starts out of any outfield player for the Nerazzurri (only Handanovic has made more). His numbers have stayed relatively similar to his breakout season, and he looks like he just keeps improving. He is already the defender who is trusted the most, so how couldn’t he excel in Manchester?
Last but not least, let’s look at by far the youngest option. I mentioned with Skriniar that Manchester United in the past have looked at the resell value of players, as seen by the club’s refusal to sign Alderweireld because of his age. He’s a player I have spoke about before near the beginning of the season. I highlighted how good he is on the ball and in the air. Now months later, has anything changed? Well not exactly. That isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. I wasn’t expecting him to keep up his early form, considering it was his first time starting consistently for Fiorentina.
Let’s go over by far his biggest strength, being his aerial ability. Milenkovic is 6.4ft. The man is a giant. and it shows from his aerial duels. He attempts 4.8 aerial duels per game, and wins 60% of them. In the Fiorentina squad, only his defensive partner, Germán Pezzella has won more aerial duels than the Serbian. He is also putting in a very solid 3.3 tackles and interceptions for his side. He also rarely ever gets dribbled past, only 0.3 times a game. The defender has all the qualities to become a complete defender. He is tall, strong, fast, confidence while also having a humbleness about him, and he has a great ability on the ball.
One of his stand out moments of his short career was his performances in the most recent world cup. Serbia had a lot to be excited about in Russia. Key players like Mitrovic, Matic and Milenkovic-Savic all came into the tournament in great form, and with other solid players like Tadic, Kolorov and Ivanovic making it a strong side all over the pitch. Even with these well known players, it was Milenkovic who stood out among his teammates. He was one of only 5 players to play every minute at the world cup for Serbia, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s important to remember that before the world cup, Milenovic wasn’t a starter for Fiorentina, so this was the first time we could all see how good the young defender was. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any player to play more than 90 minutes for his country, made the most clearances and won the second most aerial duels. This was his break out tournament and showed why there was so much promise surrounding Milenkovic.
So where does he fit in at Manchester United? Well firstly he will add that aerial prowess that the team desperately needs. Lindelof is a great reader of the game and excellent distributor, but he struggles against teams who play a more physical and direct style of play. Milenkovic is not only tall and strong, but he is also very fast. One problem I’ve realised this season regarding the defender is he has actually spent a majority of the season playing as a right back. While he isn’t as good as he is playing as a centre back, he was actually still very impressive. At a young age, Nikola Milenkovic actually used to be a sprinter, which explains why he is still adept at playing at full back. It’s a demanding role in modern football that needs players which have great athleticism. Milenkovic is surprisingly fast considering his size, and he’s done a fine job in a position he is not accustomed to. I bring this up because it would help if Solskjaer was still the manager. The team will always be defensively vulnerable because of how high up the pitch they play. Having Bailly, Lindelof and Milenkovic, three defenders with pace to burn, makes it easy to deal with any dangerous counter attacks. While I did mention previously mention that having a more experienced defender would definitely make more sense (and is still think it’s the right decision), I highly doubt Manchester United would sell Rojo, Jones and Smalling all in the same window. The club seem to have a problem with selling players, because of their contracts. They have given all these players big money contracts because of how long they’ve been at the club. It’ll be so hard to sell them because no one is going to want to pay for players over 27 with limited ability, and pay their huge wages. The club have put themselves in a difficult position. Signing someone like Milenkovic would ensure that players would be able to make those recovery tackles. He will also give us a real aerial threat at set pieces. While we are second in the league for set piece goals with 11 (it is including free kicks), we still seem very lacklustre at moments where the team should be taking advantage of a great chance to score. He takes 0.8 shots a game. It isn’t massive in the slightest, but it’s nearly double of Chris Smalling’s 0.5, which is the highest out of United’s defenders. It’ll give the club an extra advantage in an area they need to improve at. Liverpool are at the top of the Premier League and have scored the most goals from set pieces. They are a must for a team that wants to compete for a league title. Milenkovic would apparently cost €45 million. It’s a figure that United can definitely pay. While it would be a risk considering he’s only 21, but it could be a genius move on the long term.