Manchester United have a bit of a defensive logjam at the moment.
Right now, The Red Devils have six players who can play as centre backs with different degrees of familiarity. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have been in the club for years. They have shown the ability to respond to prominent roles in the team. Daley Blind can play all over the defensive line, but featured as a centre back down the stretch last year.
Eric Bailly excelled last season, and he will be a mainstay in the squad for years to come. Marcos Rojo can feature as a left back or centre back, but is currently rehabbing from injury and might not return until December. And last but not least, we have Victor Lindelöf who joined the team after a stellar season with Benfica. Not many teams in the world can say they have this kind of depth in the position. But what should United do with this abundance of centre backs?
The argument for Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo
I’m pairing Blind and Rojo for one simple reason. Even though both players can play at centre back and do a good job, both are more useful playing elsewhere. The Dutch international is a versatile player, and he can cover a number of roles on both defence and midfield. But he’s better suited to feature as a right back or as a defensive midfielder, because his accurate touch plays better on those roles. He lacks the strength and physicality to play as a centre back on a full-time basis.
On the other hand, Rojo should remain as a left back. That is his best role, and that is the position that made him arrive to Old Trafford in the first place. And while he has been playing on the centre both at United and in the Argentina National Team, Mourinho would be wise to maintain him as a left back. Especially considering the poor performances of Luke Shaw, and the fact that United does not have another natural LB on the squad at the moment. Much like Blind, he is a good emergency option but should not be considered as a CB by trait.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones
Smalling featured on 18 Premier League matches last season, and added 10 more in the UEFA Europa League. At times he started and at times he came off the bench, so he does not have a regular role as a starter at the moment. If anything, the arrival of Lindelöf complicated his presence on the team a bit more. And if we consider he can’t play in other role than centre back, it would not be shocking to see him leave during the upcoming transfer window.
On the other hand, Jones is beginning to feel like a disappointment. The former Blackburn star looked impressive in his first years with the team. However, he has not been able to live up to expectations of late. Injuries and poor performances cost him the starting role last season, and it seems he won’t have an easy path to take that back. At this point, it seems Jones is better suited to play as a defensive specialist coming off the bench. He can operate as right back, centre back, and defensive midfielder. That versatility could be useful for Mourinho.
Eric Bailly was Manchester United’s best defender last season. He also had the most appearances for a central defender, with 24 EPL starts and 11 more in the UEFA Europa League. The Ivorian defender proved to be a reliable presence for The Red Devils at the back, and he has all the time in the world to continue progressing because he’s only 23 years old.
He should start, period. Not only this season, but for the next 10 years. He is a diamond in the rough who is likely to become a fan favourite and one of the best centre backs United have had in recent memory.
Lindelöf comes with several question marks in his arrival to United. Can he adjust to the pace of the English Premier League? Can he settle in England quickly enough so he does not feel homesick in his first year? But most importantly – will he be the same player that thrived at Benfica this past two seasons? There are several things to answer regarding the club’s new signing, but one thing is certain. He represents an upgrade over the in-house options.
The Swedish international does not have the ability to play in other positions, but that does not matter. He is strong on the tackle, dominant on the air, and his positioning is excellent. Even though he is not comfortable with the ball on his feet, he is not clumsy either. It seems Lindelöf is better suited to play next to a passing defender, and all signs indicate he would fit it nicely as the strongest CB of the team. His experience with the Sweden NT will also be helpful.
Mourinho is keen to sign another defender, and there have been rumours about the team targeting Raphaël Varane. But if The Red Devils start the season with no new names on defence, then the best pairing would be the one of Lindelöf and Bailly. They might never become world-class defenders, but they are the better options right now. And who knows? With time, they can develop enough rapport to become a constant presence at the back for the side.
Time is on their side, but they have enough upside to become a modern version of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. And we all know how well United did with those two at the heart of the defence.