Louis van Gaal running out of options to complete Man United defence
Paul McNamara examines Manchester United's frustrated search for a world-class centre-half
Even in a football world that, thanks to today’s all-pervading coverage of the game, is becoming smaller by the year, it isn’t often that Sky Sports News will reel out their yellow strap-line to announce that a Real Madrid player has agreed a new five-year contract with his club.
The player in question on Monday, however, was Sergio Ramos, the defender who began the summer by, metaphorically, flashing a bit of thigh in the direction of Manchester United.
That United took the bait, engaging in a prolonged bout of flirting with the 29-year-old Spanish World Cup winner, can be interpreted as a clear demonstration of Louis van Gaal’s desire to slot an individual of proven calibre into the middle of his defence.
With the Ramos option exhausted, United’s manager won’t want to let this transfer window close without securing the authoritative defender he evidently craves.
The Dutchman has fielded Chris Smalling and Daley Blind as his central defensive duo in his team’s opening two Premier League games. It has been a case of so far so good, for the embryonic partnership; the Red Devils recording clean sheets in their outings against Tottenham and Aston Villa.
Indeed, Blind has been a revelation in his new role, especially impressive when he had to contend with the physical second-half presence of Villa’s powerful forward Rudy Gestede last Friday night. Nevertheless, to carry on with an auxiliary centre-half and still hope to be among the Premier League’s front-runners would represent a massive, and unnecessary, gamble.
One only has to witness the manner in which Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlin have stepped seamlessly into Van Gaal’s side after their respective summer arrivals, instantly raising standards, to realise the impact the addition of a first-rate central defender could have on a steadily improving team.
The problem for the Old Trafford club is the paucity of exactly that type of player right throughout world football, today.
Nicolas Otamendi is another name that was purportedly on Van Gaal’s list of potential defensive recruits. Coinciding with news of Ramos’s Bernabeu extension, however, was the story that Valencia’s Otamendi is Manchester City-bound. Should that rumour have legs, then United’s cross city rivals will have strengthened their title credentials at a stroke.
With Vincent Kompany showing signs that he might be returning to his former, assured, self, and Eliaquim Mangala seemingly ready to demonstrate why The Etihad’s kingmakers agreed to fork out £32m for the French international a year ago, Otamendi’s capture would suddenly give City’s defensive options a formidable hue.
Van Gaal and United’s past experiences will tell them that they can’t afford to neglect this crucial area of their squad, while those around them strengthen.
Some of Smalling and Blind’s Old Trafford predecessors are recalled as entities in their own right, Bruce and Pallister, Vidic and Ferdinand, partnerships that were the bedrock of enormously decorated Red Devils teams, under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Go back to Van Gaal’s thrilling Ajax outfit, Champions League winners in 1995, and an otherwise young, expressive team’s success, was founded on the nous of wizened centre-halves, Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard, then 33 and 32 years-old, respectively.
For all his previous success and knowhow, though, the heart of his defence is perhaps the issue that Van Gaal is furthest from solving, after 12 months in his current job.
Arriving at Old Trafford fresh from maximising his Dutch resources at the 2014 World Cup with the employment of a three-man defence, United’s manager adopted this tactic with his new side, to no great effect. Having a clutch of centre-halves, all of them just a notch below the standard required, is not a problem overcome by putting three of them on the pitch at once, it seems.
Going into the market for upgrades, as Van Gaal has discovered in his pursuits of Ramos and Otamendi, is riddled with obstacles. In an ideal world, the former Bayern Munich boss would identify an out-and-out defender, an individual whose number one priority is the protection of his goal. Van Gaal has already picked up one such player this summer, in right-back Darmian, a ‘proper’ defender, of the sort whose dwindling number Jamie Carragher is often to be heard lamenting.
Of the centre-halves already on the Old Trafford staff, Chris Smalling is the one who is finally emerging as a sound long term bet. When Smalling and Phil Jones shone for the England Under-21 team at the European Championship finals of 2011, they were touted as the twosome to star for club and country for years to come. It has taken four years for Smalling to look as if he has a chance of making good on all that promise. Jones, however, blighted by injury, is as far away as ever from convincing anybody that he will become a United – or England – mainstay.
With Jonny Evans having apparently run out of chances to establish himself in his manager’s plans, Van Gaal’s search for a new defender goes on. The more obvious move now would be to enter the bidding for John Stones. A former man of Everton, though, could be worth a look. Shkodran Mustafi didn’t make the grade at Goodison Park, but the German played alongside Otamendi in the Valencia side that leaked only 32 goals in 38 games, on course to finishing fourth in last season’s La Liga.
To illustrate further the 23 year-old’s credentials, three days after Van Gaal had sent out a back three of Evans, Smalling and Jones for a New Year’s Day game at Stoke, Otamendi and Mustafi were starring, as Valencia put an end to the 22-match winning run of a visiting Real Madrid side. The Argentine, for good measure, popped up with the winner, against a Los Blancos team whose only strike came via a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty.
Things are more settled in the 20-times English champions’ defence today, but there is no acceptable back-up to the current arrangement.
If Van Gaal can’t immediately pin down a centre-half who he believes will complement the stellar cast he is carefully compiling at Old Trafford, then there is one fall-back option. Ron Vlaar will be fit and available for hire in a few months. For the short-term, at least, the United manager’s World Cup centre-half, outstanding in that tournament’s semi-final for Holland against Argentina, would fit the bill.
One way or the other, though, Manchester United’s lack of a world class defender shouldn’t be allowed to rumble on any longer.