Reality Check: Evra’s form and future

Author: Doron

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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?

The past

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:

Natural decline

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.

Defensive injuries

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.

Perceptions

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.

The future

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.

Conclusion

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.

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7 Responses to “Reality Check: Evra’s form and future”

  1. Paolo Cruz says:

    Nice read Doron,

    I think you are spot on in that Evra’s impeccable form in the past makes him seem subpar when his form dips just a bit. While his end product leaves a lot to be desired how many left backs in the world deliver pin point balls? Off the of my head Baines, Lahm, there is a reason why attack-minded fullbacks are fullbacks and not wingers. If they had great end product they would probably would be wingers!

    While his form has dipped there’s not many LBs in the world who have the stamina and unselfishness to constantly/consistently make those overlapping runs for 90 minutes while not always seeing the ball.

    Also I think Evra’s mentality/drive are important in the dressing room. Out of all of Ferguson’s recent buys it is Evra who has embraced the Manchester United culture/attitude the most.

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  2. @Paolo Cruz – thanks for the comment.

    Totally agree about embracing the United attitude and culture – didn’t mention that but you’re spot on. I love reading things he’s said, he’s clearly a very passionate guy. I’ve no doubt he’s the kind of guy who we’d all hate if he played for another team!!

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  3. denton davey says:

    I disagree somewhat with your argument – CaptainEvra’s “problem” has been more to do with positioning than any apparent physical decline. He was caught out twice against Barcelona in the CL Final and this season he has repeatedly been missing-in-action because, I think, he tends to drift inside and not play a defensively-simple game. (Does this have to do with the ever-changing partnership he has with the center-backs or is it indicative of some kind of mental issue – “going walkabout” ? )Indeed, I’ve been struck by Patrice’s incredible physical powers and haven’t seen any significant decline in that aspect of his game.

    On the other side of the ball, so to speak, I think that CaptainEvra is a much more dangerous attacking full-back when he’s paired with Nani, rather than Ashley Young. Nani is genuinely two-footed; Young is not. That means defenders who might know that Patrice is one-footed and “over=play” his left foot, have a different problem when he’s inter-changing with Nani. Defending against Ashley Young isn’t an easy matter but it’s much less complicated.

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  4. Whilst you make some interesting points, I don’t agree fully with your article.

    After an initial settling in period Evra had a period when in my view he was without doubt the best left back in the world. Any players individual form needs to be seen in the context of the way the team is playing and so the role he is asked to fulfil. United’s approach has changed over his time at the club, often only subtle changes, but ones which have no doubt had an impact upon Patrice.

    The criticism of Evra has at times been a little harsh and the increase in that criticism this season has baffled me. I think Evra has not been at his previous high standard for a couple of years now, but if anything I feel he has been slightly better this year than in the last couple of years.

    I don’t agree with the statement that, “Evra’s always been good at getting back into position and has been very aware of space in behind him”. In my opinion this has been his biggest weakness.

    Currently the way United are playing both fullbacks are expected to push on when the opportunity arises, but more than this as our attackers tend to be very fluid, (especially laterally across the pitch), this results in two interesting features.

    Firstly this movement ahead of the fullbacks can often leave them exposed. The opposition can then double load them. Evra generally copes well with this, (if he is in position), Rafael on the other side not so well.

    Secondly the movement ahead of the full backs means that when they move forward to join in they may be opportunities to overlap their winger, or under-lap the winger cutting diagonally inside. Evra and Rafael under-lap so often that this must be a deliberate and instructed tactic. Going forward it often works. The problem for Evra is that this under-lapping often leaves space outside and behind him and he is caught out of position, often being too narrow. It is my view that he is a bit slow generally to recover his position. In short his diagonal movement when going forward seems to result in Patrice losing his bearings.

    This is a difficult problem for any full-back. Contrast Evra’s play with that of Ashley Cole in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 shape. Chelsea’s narrower midfield means that Cole is expected to run in a straight line up and down the pitch, making it easier to keep his bearing and quicker for him to get back into position, (you generally don’t have to run as far in a straight line as you do in a diagonal). Roberto Carlos did the same thing for years for Real Madrid.

    We have to be aware that the task Patrice is being asked to execute is a hard one. He has had a lot to deal with this season and the effectiveness of the players ahead of him is also to be considered; I think these are points well made. Rafael has an easier ride because Valencia ahead of him is on fire. I would also point out that Patrice went mad in the last fifteen minutes against Manchester City, completely mad, but he was not alone in that.

    Patrice Evra is still an important player for the club, and their are bigger issues in other areas of the pitch that we need to address.

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  5. strat says:

    Evra has always given 100% to United. I can’t even bring myself to say anything negative about him. He is my favourite united player.

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  6. red 7 says:

    There have been to much chances for opposition teams via his side. He needs to move back faster and / or keep his position better. If he does that, and I am sure he is still able to do so, he will be back at his best for some years. Bringing in real competition for left back, for example Jordi Alba, is a good idea anyway.

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  7. Steve says:

    Worth mentioning that Evra’s brother died mid season,been a tough season mentally for him.

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  8. [...] potentially, depending on how you feel about Rafael and Evra, could do with looking for additional fullbacks – even if only to challenge those who start. The [...]

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