Marcos Rojo is a Red: What can we expect?

“That’s Youngy, he plays left wingback these days.” “Him?”

Authors: Rob and Pedro

Despite needlessly restrictive and bureaucratic UK immigration policy, Marcos Rojo is now a Manchester United player, having joined in a deal that sees £16 million go into the murky web of deceit, skulduggery and credit default swaps that characterise the world of modern football finance to his former club and third-party owners, as well as Nani’s return to Sporting CP on a season-long loan. Some were quite surprised at the size of the deal, especially since it featured Nani as a makeweight despite him having some truly excellent spells of form for United (admittedly mixed in with longer spells of frustrating uselessness).

Anyway, back to Rojo. I think it’s safe to say that most of us had never even heard of him until the World Cup and would still have great difficulty identifying him if he’s not dressed in a full Argentina or Man United kit might need a little refresher on his attributes, because of the astonishingly wide range of football leagues and cultures we watch and experience on a daily basis and the difficulty of remembering every little detail. To illustrate, the extent of my knowledge about Marcos Rojo is as follows:

With all that in mind, I thought it would be good to learn what we can expect with the Argentine defender from someone who has seen him play numerous times, in multiple positions, at both club and international levels. So I’m delighted to share the thoughts of Pedro, a very good friend of the blog who describes himself as “a Benfica supporter and a Manchester United sympathiser 1I will not make lame Rolling Stones puns about red devils and sympathy I will not make lame Rolling Stones puns about red devils and sympathy I will not make lame Rolling Stones puns about red de for lack of  a better word.”

Pedro is a keen and razor-sharp observer of the sport – among a vast range of interests about which he is equally witty and insightful. Moreover, having seen Marcos Rojo in action multiple times at Sporting and for Argentina at the World Cup, as well as having seen the early days of United’s evolution under Louis van Gaal, he’s in an excellent position to judge how Rojo will fit into the new system, and what we should look out for in the coming games and seasons.


Thoughts on Marcos Rojo (by Pedro)

Given that he was ostensibly signed to play in and cover multiple positions – namely, on the left of a central-defensive trio, a left-sided fullback (in a 4-man defence) or wingback (in a 3-5-2) – it might be useful to evaluate his attributes separately, as the two roles 2For simplicity we’ll ignore the subtle differences between the wingback and fullback roles, and treat them as one here. make wildly different demands on a player, both physically and tactically.

Rojo at centre-back
With a very strong and athletic build, Rojo really has all of the physical attributes required of a central defender. In terms of temperament, he doesn’t shirk from challenges or confrontation, and is very proactive in attacking the ball before the opposing striker can get it under control, something that Van Gaal may well appreciate given the system of controlled pressing he wishes to implement. As you would expect, Rojo is good in the air, as a consequence of his build and athleticism. On the ball, he has reasonably good passing ability and is also pretty comfortable with the ball at his feet, as seen in the World Cup. Another thing you suspect Van Gaal will appreciate: the Argentine is good in 1v1 situations – which United’s defenders will expect to face quite frequently, as the team as a whole adapts to their new tactical system.

That said, the player’s weaknesses at centre back are not insignificant. He can be very suspect positionally, all the more when asked to play in a system that requires more complex decisions from defenders, and particularly if in a high line – the new United boss should be aware of this and work to improve Rojo’s decision-making as far as possible. While reasonably good in anticipating passes to opposition attackers, can be excessively rash and careless when challenging for the ball. Coupled with positional deficiencies in his game, this leads to a very high number of disciplinary points and suspensions. His attacking game could also do with significant improvement, as he often looks for the vertical (direct) pass – either in the air or along the ground – and often hampers careful build-up from the back as a result.

Rojo at left wingback/fullback
Here again, the ex-Sporting man’s primary gifts are physical: Rojo possesses tremendous stamina and endurance, which, coupled with his bullish attitude and willingness, means he is always going to provide an outside option in attack. This served him very well in an Argentina side that played with an essentially ‘broken’ team, as he joined the front five when attacking and had the stamina to recover in transition. Again, his strength in 1v1 situations is a significant plus.

While technically competent as a centre back, however, he’s not terribly impressive when playing further forward – as he will no doubt do when asked to take up a fullback/wingback role. He is frequently guilty of aimless crosses as much as of playing punts up-field when playing as a CB. I would say that he is positionally suspect, again, and often doesn’t really understand what the position requires of him when playing in a back line that has the ball as the reference rather than the man. A quick example of this to illustrate what I mean here: Rojo could frequently be found staying out wide marking “his” winger rather than moving with the back line as a compact unit, thereby leaving gaps in the middle that midfield runners can exploit.

Conclusion, and the Irony about Garay
For me, Rojo has been significantly below a number of other centre-backs in Portugal in the past couple of seasons, most noticeably Ezequiel Garay, who was also extensively linked with United, and also excelled at the World Cup – arguably to a greater extent than did Rojo. United’s new signing is more athletic than his countryman, but nowhere near as competent a defender and less capable with the ball at his feet. He is also lacking in experience and has only had one good season at a European club, after his failed experience in Russia and a universally-acknowledged terrible first season at Sporting. That said, while he did poorly in his first season, the team had absolutely no structure to it and his performances improved significantly last season in a team with a more solid tactical setup.

He was helped by Sporting being a much more compact team last year, with the support of William Carvalho screening ahead of the back line, and the fact that a terrible club season the previous year meant that opposing teams were a bit more adventurous against Sporting. This allowed for a setup where Sporting didn’t have to play against very deep and compact defences in the same way that Porto or Benfica had to, so he wasn’t found out quite so often. I’m not sure how he would do as the left sided CB in a three man defence, but to my knowledge he only played as a wing back in that system for Argentina. In short, expect lots of attitude, commitment and aggression – both for good and bad. For my money, he is not an improvement on any of the CBs at the club, and is more of a “different” option coupled with some versatility. Of course, he could still learn if given the time and tools, and the less structured nature of games in the PL will make his strong points more salient and his tactical deficiencies less noticeable.

This is a bit off topic, but a couple of years ago I thought the idea that United “needed” Garay was absolute nonsense given the fact that there were three senior CB at the club and two very promising youngsters. With Vidic and Rio gone, along with Evans’ injury woes, that has changed dramatically, but bringing in a relatively raw CB with fewer good seasons behind him than any of the current defenders at the club seems to make little sense, if he is to be given any sort of prominent role (as it appears he will be). £16m is very, very pricey and sending Nani to SCP while paying his wages is quite astonishing, really, all the more so given the nonsense with the fund that owned 75% of his sporting rights. Garay is said to have agreed a deal with Zenit in January should he be transferred, but it’s hard to imagine United couldn’t have offered something he would be happy with at the time. I’ve read from some folks “who know folks” that teams in England thought Garay was too slow. Seems like United preferred the raw physique and build of Rojo to the experience, tactical acumen and passing abilities of Garay. This move seems very much in line with how things are done in England, but I think the latter would have made perfect sense at this juncture, having had two excellent European campaigns and having reached footballing maturity.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I will not make lame Rolling Stones puns about red devils and sympathy I will not make lame Rolling Stones puns about red devils and sympathy I will not make lame Rolling Stones puns about red de
2. For simplicity we’ll ignore the subtle differences between the wingback and fullback roles, and treat them as one here.

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