Just three United players have completed more than 3,000 minutes of football for the club this season – De Gea (3,053), Rooney (3,256) and, in Vidic’s absence, the captain, Evra (3,699). Clearly Evra’s seen as being vital to the side, and yet, he’s come in for heavy criticism by the hordes of internet fans this season. To what extent is it justified and does Evra need to change the way he plays in the future?
In his seventh season as a United player, Evra’s fast closing in on 300 appearances for the club. For much of that time, he’s been the best left back in the world with only really Ashley Cole pushing him close. And yet, aged 30, when he should be at his very peak, fans have been questioning his form and suggesting that a left back may well be on Fergie’s shopping list this summer.
Evra’s signing was very much a reaction to Heinze’s injury, or so it seemed at the time. Early performances were more encouraging than his debut suggests (infamously he was hauled off at half time against Man City) and within 12 months of signing, Pat had all but made the left back spot his own. He offered considerably more in attack than Heinze and both his pace and on-the-ball ability gave him an edge in defensive situations. There was always a hint of Heinze being a centre back playing out of position whereas Evra just gave the side more shape.
Quickly, Evra established himself as one of the world’s best fullbacks. He’s been rewarded with various individual awards like being named in UEFA Team of the Year and the FIFPro World XI. At United, he’s averaged two medals a year and has regularly been named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
What I’m getting at, is that United have had one of the best players in the world in his position playing for them. We’re used to consistently top level performances from Evra and therefore any dip below that high par standard is only exaggerated. Even more so with Evra given that he’s not had this kind of criticism before, nor does he have any real competition for his place in the side.
So, what of this season?
With the exception of West Brom away, our opening game of the season, Evra has been ever present in the league. Fabio’s injuries have meant he’s had little competition for his place and similarly there’s been no chance to rest him. Zeki Fryers’ surprise emergence mid-season offered some back-up but despite calls for Zeki to be starting ahead of Pat, he was nowhere near ready to be challenging for the left back spot.
It is certainly fair to conclude that over the course of the season so far, his performance level is definitely lower than in previous campaigns. Trying to fathom out why this is the case though is tricky. Here are my theories:
This may be the most obvious of reasons, but Evra’s getting older! Despite being incredibly fit and, not really that old, the natural decline that tends to come once in the 30s hits at different points for each player. Evra turns 31 in May and given that a lot of what has made him great is based on prolonged bursts of energy, pace and athleticism, it’s normal that as his physical attributes decline, so will these assets of his.
With the exception of Evra (and to an extent, Evans), all of United’s defenders have missed lengthy spells due to injuries. Like De Gea wasn’t helped by an ever changing back-line, it’s not helped Evra either. He’s used to having Vidic next to him and has had to adapt how he plays to suit each centre back pairing. Given Evra’s quality, it’s fair enough to suggest that this shouldn’t trouble him too much. However, it certainly disrupts the balance at the back and understanding how individual centre backs defend and move within space is key to how a fullback plays.
Keeping fresh physically and mentally
Even the strongest of players need a break sometimes. Whilst not having a settled right back hasn’t been ideal, it has meant that Jones, Smalling and Rafael have all appeared fresh when they’ve been selected over the course of the season. Their enforced breaks have in that respect benefited the team. With Evra completing more than 61 hours of football this season, he’s hardly had a break. In fact, it’s been that way for a few seasons for him now and over time, this catches up.
Mentally, Evra’s a strong person. But even the toughest people can crack. Ever since the summer of 2010 and the World Cup shambles for France, he’s appeared somewhat preoccupied or disturbed at times. This season he’s had to contend with a race issue that can’t have helped him. However, since that has been put to bed, his form does seem to have picked up again. Evra’s very much of the ilk that his poor performances are heavily criticised but when he’s playing well no one says anything. Criticism has certainly subsided the past 6-7 weeks which can only suggest he’s doing fine again.
Natural left wingers
Evra joined United just as Giggs was starting to play more centrally; in fact, United have rarely played with a natural left sided winger in Evra’s time here, giving him more freedom to get into attacking positions. With freedom comes responsibility though – Evra’s always been good at getting back into position and has been very aware of space in behind him.
This season though, Evra’s been lethargic at times when defending, leaving space in behind him all too often. Maybe that’s harsh though – maybe teams have wised-up to the fact that when United don’t play with a natural left winger, they can double-up on Evra knowing that he’s unlikely to get much defensive help. Tactically, it’s a great move by any opponent but only serves to make Evra look poor when in reality he just needs some help.
When Ashley Young has played on the left though, Evra’s been much more assured. Young, despite probably favouring the right wing, is very capable of playing on the left. His work-rate and defensive team-play has been better than I thought it might be and has definitely helped Evra. What Pat needs to learn though is that Young is a very capable winger who doesn’t necessarily need an overlapping fullback to help him. Like Ferdinand has had to adapt his game, maybe it’s time for Evra to adapt his, picking and choosing his moments to get high up the pitch a bit more sensibly in order to ensure he’s not caught out getting back into position.
No team can ever be perfect, so fans, even at the best of times need someone to have a moan at. With Gibson leaving and regular boo-boys Carrick and Evans playing very well, Evra appears to be in the firing line. Evra’s form may have dropped but he’s nowhere near as bad as fans want to suggest – certainly the calls for him to replaced by Fryers were so unbelievably wide of the mark. That’s nothing against Fryers’ potential but it just goes to show how silly reactionary opinions can be sometimes.
The most important opinion belongs to Sir Alex Ferguson. He rightly acknowledged that Evra was tired and gave him time off around the Ajax Europa League games recently. Evra continues to be praised, picked and was made the captain in Vidic’s absence. Ferguson’s often praised for knowing when a player’s time is up at the club (there are a few exceptions – Owen for example); right now, Evra’s future in Fergie’s eyes appears relatively secure.
He’s getting no younger so it’s understandable that the club will be starting to look at future left back options. There’s even the potential that one might be signed this summer to allow the player to settle, adjust and adapt so that when the club are ready to replace Evra, his replacement is prepared.
Of course identifying potential replacements is far from easy. Fabio seems the obvious choice but is determined to never be fit for a prolonged spell. Plenty have been linked with the club for the last two years but none are at the same high level as Evra nor really have the potential to be there. Maybe the best option is Jordi Alba but he’s currently too inexperienced and has lots of rough edges that need smoothing out. Arguably, there is a real shortage of quality fullbacks in world football right now which makes Evra even more of an asset to the club and even harder to replace.
That’s not to suggest that Evra is finished – no chance. He has at least another season in him. He is likely to need to adapt though and certainly will require resting. Fabio’s fitness is likely to be of real importance – tactically resting Evra is going to become a necessity.
Ultimately, I think it says a lot about the standard of football United have played this season that someone as solid as Evra is the one being singled out for replacement. Certainly he’s not been as good as he has been in the past but he’s not been as bad as some like to make out; and, many factors have not helped him. Expectations at the club have never been higher and it’s up to Evra to now prove that he can adapt and is still the best in the business.