Having been frequently linked with a move to Old Trafford over the past year, Ezequiel Garay is reportedly close to signing terms with Manchester United. With the prospect of the 26-year-old defender’s arrival, rumours have swirled around the future of Nemanja Vidic whose aura of invincibility has been dented and his pace slowed by a serious, recurring knee injury.
Suggestions that Garay could replace the battle-worn fan favourite have been far from popular. Marx’s observation that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, echoes around another defensive transfer saga from United’s recent past.
This tragedy came about in 2001 with the sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio. A worrying downturn in form, combined with an inconveniently controversial autobiography, led Sir Alex Ferguson to believe that the Dutchman had entered an irrecoverable, long-term decline. His solution was to bring in World Cup and Euro winning centre-back Laurent Blanc, nicknamed Le President for his stately presence and goal scoring record at Marseille.
Ferguson had long wished to add Blanc to the United squad, but while the Frenchman may have been one of the finest defenders of his generation, he arrived at Old Trafford more than a few years past his best. Slowed by age, Blanc stumbled into the Premier League and United’s results suffered. The president soon became known as Larry White, impeached by his bemused, English critics, as Stam continued on as a key player for Lazio, Milan and Ajax. Though Blanc’s influence on the training ground helped further the development of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, Ferguson admitted that selling his Champions League winning defender was his greatest transfer error.
With this in mind, fans are understandably suspicious of claims that the Serbian, who has come to embody the club’s self-cultivated intimidation factor, is no longer fit for purpose. After all, Garay’s speed is in his mind rather than his legs – another uncomfortable layer to the Laurent Blanc comparison that doesn’t sit well in the mind of historically aware supporters. To them, the Benfica player may as well be a glamorous yet sluggish Real Madird reject if Vidic is to be characterised as Boxer on his way to the glue factory.
However, ambitions are high in the south of France and Monaco are hovering; eager to capture Manchester United’s captain as another prestigious statement of their intent. Following his years of service at Old Trafford, it’s difficult to argue that Vidic should be denied a bumper retirement package on the French Riviera, yet selling Vidic isn’t necessary even if a sixth defender is brought into the club.
The danger exists that the backline could wither without adequate support for Jonny Evans in a similar manner to United’s recently underpowered midfield. Like Michael Carrick, the Northern Irishman often goes unappreciated due to his less than brutal, cultured approach. In fact, last season Evans was the rock United built their defence around, with the skills of Ferdinand and Vidic paired to his game depending on the opposition. The back two became focused on retaining possession and distributing the ball with the selection of the former, while the latter retooled the backline for aerial combat and more physical challenges.
With neither veteran able to play two games a week anymore, Evans is at risk of becoming overworked and under loved like his midfield colleague. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are fantastic prospects but Anderson’s failure to realise his potential warns of the risk brought by assuming developing talent will rise to share the load. Though fitness concerns steal away Ferdinand and Vidic from duty, Jones and Smalling are also needed elsewhere in midfield and at right back respectively. United’s five man centre-back roster is more fragile than its numbers suggest too, with a spate of injuries requiring Carrick to drop back at times over the past two years.
Ezequiel Garay could well cover the mid-to-late twenties skill gap that has developed, and help shoulder the responsibility with Evans if not overshadow him in the lead role at the back. Though the styles and skills are different, the Argentine could be to the defensive ranks what Owen Hargreaves was to the midfield in 2008 – a player who looked to have been the perfect solution to the team’s spinal deficiencies. Assuming David Moyes continues Manchester United’s recent trend towards ball possession, Garay would be an excellent acquisition in the mould of Rio Ferdinand, who Evans played his best football with last season.
Having pursued Raphael Varane, Nevan Subotic, Mats Hummels and Jan Vertonghen with varying degrees of seriousness and interest, Sir Alex Ferguson was clearly aware of the need to add a sixth man to the club’s defensive line-up. Rather than let a situation develop as it did further upfield, United should invest from their position of strength; sign Garay as a luxury before he need become an act of desperation.