A centre back isn’t necessarily the most exciting of players to write about. Not known for their flair or skills, it’s harder to captivate an audience when concentration, strength and aerial ability are the qualities that the player is judged upon. It can be even trickier to judge a younger centre back; so often at youth levels, naturally the taller players play in those positions because of a physical presence. I hope I can try and make the centre back sound more interesting here and I can only encourage you to have an open mind as I introduce Tom Thorpe.
Name – Thomas Joseph Thorpe
Age – 17 (13/1/1993)
Nationality – English – born in Manchester
Squad number – N/A
Background – Tom, like a lot of the players in the Academy is a local lad. He has been with the club throughout the schoolboy age groups and first came into the U18 scene during the 2008/09 season after impressing in the U16s. He became a first year scholar in July 2009 and went on to have a very successful season – only Nicky Ajose started more games. International honours became more serious as Thorpe became an important part of the England U17 squad and was a member of the European Championship winning team in May earlier this year. Tom’s second season as a scholar started this summer and he was rewarded with his first professional contract with the club. His role within the Academy has certainly got bigger – he captained the side at the Milk Cup in pre-season and often has the armband this year. Despite not featuring pre-season for the Reserves he has played on a regular basis for them since.
Position – Tom is a centre back. He plays in an English modern style whereby the centre back carries the ball out of defence, quite often starting a move. He appears to have no preference as to which side of the centre back two he plays in. He’s versatile enough to cover in either full back position and his forrays forward that have become a common sight of late suggest he’d probably be capable of standing in as a central midfielder if need be.
Strengths – The most obvious thing that strikes me about Tom is the ease with which he plays. The Man United website describe him as “athletic” and the FA’s website describe him as “elegant and stylish” – I’d agree with both. He never looks panicky when he plays, he’s a very calm and reassuring footballer. Tom is by no means the tallest defender but he has a good spring and he times his jumping very well – he is of course still growing. Two years ago he looked a tad gangly but now he’s starting to broaden and fill out his physique is quite imposing. By no means is he slow, he’s got good pace once he gets going – this is often evident in his runs forward. Tom has an excellent first touch and he is always looking to bring the ball out of defence. Lately this has lead to him going on charging runs forward and has in fact rewarded him with a stunning counter attacking goal against Bolton’s Reserves (see videos below). The most impressive quality though in Tom beyond the fact he’s stylish and a becoming a good user of the ball is his leadership and off the ball skills. He’s a very composed footballer and reads play excellently. Giving him the captaincy in games has helped to improve his organisational skills and his positioning has definitely improved as a result. He’s rarely looked out of place when making the step up to the Reserves and at times even adds a bit of calmness and authority.
Weaknesses – I think that lots of credit and praise must be heaped on Tom. If I was writing this a year ago there would have been plenty of areas that I could raise as a weakness. However he has worked tremendously hard on his game to improve particularly his passing, his positional play, his physique and his heading. That’s not to say these areas cannot be improved on further but to me it’s obvious he has come a long way in a year. The things I’d like to see him improve upon now would be his aggression and his marking. For all his elegance and stylish manner of play, Tom could do with ‘getting stuck in’ a bit more. He’s not a soft centre back, I don’t think such a thing exists but I think it would add a bit of fear-factor to his game. As for the marking – whilst organisationally and positionally I praised Tom he often doesn’t get close enough to his man. This is noticeable at set pieces when too often the player he is meant to be marking gets a free header. Similarly I think he commits himself at the wrong times, I’ve seen strikers spin and turn him far too easily, leaving him flat footed. That’s something that comes with experience though – I think being more aggressive would add a lot to his game.
Player comparison – From within United he would be a cross between Jonny Evans (before his current dip in form) and in terms of style and ease of play, Rio Ferdinand. He definitely has areas of his game that one would associate with Gerard Pique or even a fit Jonathan Woodgate.
Bizarre Fact – I can’t say I know of anything bizarre or quirky about Tom. I think however it’s important to realise how he’s viewed outside of United too. Tom recently won his first England U18 cap and he is part of an exciting new ‘breed’ of young English defenders currently emerging between the ages of 16 and 20. There has been a lull amongst the production of English centre backs lately – between the ages of 21 and 25 there aren’t many who have gone on to challenge for a place in the full national team. Curtis Davies, Steven Taylor, Micah Richard, Gary Cahill, David Wheater, Michael Mancienne and Anton Ferdinand all won U21 caps and have at some point been spoken of making the breakthrough but so far none have. The achievements last summer of the England U17s in winning the European Championships was huge and Tom has arguably made the best progress out of all the defenders in that side. The FA dubbed that squad as History Boys.
Video evidence (keep an eye out for the goal I mentioned earlier against Bolton):
Prediction – Of course I want to air caution as I do with all the players I profile. Ryan is one of a number of talented young defenders both at club and international level. Due to the concentration levels required to be a centre back let alone a centre back at United, defenders take longer to mature. There will be blips and errors will be made, the mark of a good centre back is how he is able to then pick himself back up – the example of Jonny Evans at the moment is probably perfect. Tom’s made a great impression on the Reserves and is slowly becoming one of the players who is getting too good for Academy level. I would expect Tom to be near enough first choice for the Reserves by the end of the season and roughly this time next year, just before his 19th birthday, I’d expect talk of loans to start happening. It’s hard to judge a young centre back, the path to success is so very unpredictable. What’s for sure though is that Tom has made a bright start to his career and he certainly has the right work rate and ethic about him to give himself the best chance possible.