Amongst the myriad of conundrums which Jose has had to crack this year, the heart of defence certainly appears one of the trickiest propositions. Unlike Sir Alex, who could rely upon the superb defensive pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic, Mourinho has had to; through injury circumstance hone the capabilities of hitherto defensive reprobates Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. Argument is rife amongst supporters about which two defenders combine for our best central defensive partnership, if all are fit and whether their form justifies our reticence to strengthen this area in the transfer market during the January window. Furthermore, with youth products such as Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah vying for defensive inclusion, another portion of the fan base would prefer to develop their talents to provide the solution of defensive solidity. The dearth of clean sheets, despite having the best keeper in the league, suggests that this is a situation which needs to be rectified as soon as possible but the solution is not an entirely obvious one.
Firstly, we need to look at the defensive displays we have shown in the league to garner evidence on how the current defensive crop has performed thus far under Mourinho’s stewardship. Whilst attacking frailties have been magnified regarding Manchester United’s profligacy, the defence has escaped similar censure principally because of the upturn in fortunes over the last couple of months in positive results. However, Manchester United have only attained ten clean sheets in 25 league games. Contrast this with runaway league leaders Chelsea who have accrued 13 clean sheets over an equal number of games and it becomes apparent how integral defensive security is as a characteristic of a team.
Indeed, when you look at the games in which we have secured “drosses” (a term coined by Mark Goldbridge, referring to a draw which is as good as a loss), Stoke (both home and away), Arsenal, West Ham, Everton and Liverpool (Home), a greater proportion are games which have ended one all than goalless “drosses”, only Liverpool (away) and Hull at home in fact all season. Indubitably, we were wasteful with our own chances but the opposition offered very little threat for the most part, sporadic at best yet were able to find the net to steal points from us. This is why I feel that the defensive issues have been camouflaged somewhat by the hyperbole surrounding our profligacy rather than an inability to bolt the door at the other end from even the tamest of attacking pillagers.
Of the four main central defenders we possess on our current roster which has emerged this season with the most credit and which the least? Eric Bailly, upon first glance, appears the most obvious starting centre back due to his athletic powerful physique and combative nature. However, 3 yellow cards and other flaring points have led to concerns regarding the Ivorian’s temperament. To his credit though, he does possess the extra guile and class compared with his contemporaries. Marcos Rojo, to an even greater extent, despite sharing the 3 yellow card amount with Bailly is prone to the odd, rash challenge which could have warranted harsher punitive action against Everton and Crystal Palace. By contrast, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have yet to pick up a league card, showing a greater level of maturity. Only yesterday, Eric Bailly received an unnecessary red card in the Europa League against St Etienne, albeit a harsh one which could have further ramifications if committed in a tighter, more important affair.
All defenders pride themselves on their tackling ability but which of our four players has proven themselves most adept at this difficult skill to master? Incredibly, in 14 Premier League games this season Eric Bailly, tops the list with 26 tackles won during these games and whilst Jones and Rojo have won 16 and 14 tackles respectively at the time of writing, Chris Smalling has only won 7 tackles. This really epitomises why Smalling seems relatively lightweight when compared with his more combative counterparts, as he doesn’t possess the ability to dominate the opposing attacking players. The more prescient of readers will have determined the most logical counterargument would be that Smalling’s reading of the game and his number of interceptions in the Premier League this season would be larger, which is why he is forearmed and doesn’t need to tackle as often as our other case subjects.
In interceptions, once more though, Eric Bailly stands head and shoulders above the others having accrued 34 interceptions, whilst this time Rojo and Jones swap positions in the pecking order and have accumulated 24 and 20 interceptions each. Chris Smalling, incredibly, props up this list also, having made a miserable 8 interceptions in all of his Premier League game time this season. When you combine the two areas of tackles won and interceptions, despite mitigating circumstances of fewer minutes played, the result is a pretty damning indictment of Smalling’s defensive prowess so far this season.
The importance of composure, whilst on the ball as a defender, cannot be understated. Defenders should be able to beat players and show an aptitude for playing the game in a controlled and considered manner. Often a defender able to beat players is invaluable, as opposing players are forced to engage the ball and leave open spaces. The opposition’s formation fluctuates which attacking players can look to exploit. Eric Bailly, in a recurring display of dominance, has a successful take on % of 90 while Marcos Rojo is not far behind with 81.82%. Phil Jones, has a successful take on rate of 50%, which is a considerable drop in efficiency behind these two while Chris Smalling, in a statistic perhaps the most shocking of any collated in this study, has a successful take on % of 0. This, quite frankly, beggars belief, given that this guarantees he is, at best, equal worst in the entire Premier League for this statistic.
Smalling is often complimented on his aerial ability and, as we move away from these sobering statistics, he finds redemption in the % of aerial duels won. Phil Jones leads the way with a creditable 73.17% of aerial duels won, whilst Smalling at 66.67% has the second highest figure in this section. Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo at 60% and 59.62% respectively, are at the foot of the table in that statistic but the disparity in this statistic between our subjects is far less than in other notable areas analysed above.
In the section of amount of clearances, Marcos Rojo really excels with 118 clearances made. Phil Jones (99) and Chris Smalling (92) follow with Bailly (78) rounding off the candidates. This will come as no surprise to people who have watched Marcos Rojo mopping up errors from his defensive counterparts this season, time and time again. Bailly, at least, is forgiven because of his successful take on % of 90 as it shows he might want to play out from the back but surely Jones and Smalling who particularly foundered in that area should be the highest in clearances?
It should also be noted that in general terms with fouls committed, Smalling and Jones could be seen to thrive, having only committed 7 and 5 respectively compared with Bailly (14) and Rojo (17) which also provides support for their case to be included. However, as I mentioned before quite often Rojo and Bailly are left exposed by their lack of positional awareness. Smalling and Jones, as we know, have a tendency to dally on the ball too long, shown in their far inferior take on scores.
In conclusion, my overarching recommendation would be to buy a top quality, world class centre back in the summer to complement Eric Bailly. We owe it to David De Gea to try and protect him more than we do currently, with a better defensive unit than we possess at present and a recognised, proven centre back would provide a more solid foundation for any potential title tilt next season. In terms of the current central defensive pairing, my feeling, compounded by the evidence studied above is that Marcos Rojo is the man best suited to partnering Eric Bailly for the remainder of the season.
Chris Smalling’s figures and position across the analysis, attributable to his general lack of composure enable us; I feel to remove him from the equation of our best partner for Bailly. Phil Jones, unlike Sir Alex Ferguson postulated in perhaps his worst error of judgment during his tenure, is nowhere near the player comparable to Duncan Edwards, as he doesn’t have the ball playing skill necessary to be a top centre back. His favourite phrase may well be coined as “Why make a forward pass, if one sideways or backwards would do?” His total of 191 backward passes monumentally dwarfs Rojo (138) and Bailly (106) in fewer minutes played providing evidentiary substantiation to this quip. Also, his injury record is quite simply staggering and it would be an incredible shock if he were to overturn his near legendary permanent place on the Manchester United treatment table.
Rojo, by contrast, has a far greater ball playing ability, shown through his more positive passing (549 forward passes) comfortably ahead of Bailly in 2nd (384) and take on ability and as I alluded to before, has a far, far superior level of composure. The ability to make the correct decision in a stressful defensive situation, in my view, really separates Rojo from Jones or Smalling and makes him the ideal candidate to partner Bailly going forward this season as well as the statistical evidence supplied above.
Statistics Obtained from www.squawka.com