As Louis Van Gaal steered Manchester United to a fourth place finish in the Premier League last season and back into the Champions League at the first time of asking, there was plenty of talk about continued investment into the squad for the forthcoming campaign, even before the season had come to a close. Van Gaal was aiming to strengthen every area of his squad and in the eyes of many, it was the position of center-back that required the most amount of attention.
It was therefore no surprise that the likes of Mats Hummels, Nicolas Otamendi and Sergio Ramos were linked with big money moves to Old Trafford. Although giving the prospect of a move to United considerable thought, Hummels decided it would be best for him to stay at Borussia Dortmund for another season, and Ramos would go on to a sign a bumper new deal at Real Madrid having flirted with the idea of a move to United when the Red Devils brought his name up for a swap deal during negotiations with Real Madrid over a transfer for David De Gea. Otamendi would go on to complete a late move to arch rivals Manchester City from Valencia for 36 million, and United would eventually finish the window, incredibly, without having signed a center-back.
The signals coming out from Old Trafford were that United were happy with the options they had in central defence and would only move for a world class player who could significantly improve the back-line. Jonny Evans was then sold to West Brom toward the end of the window and Tyler Blackett loaned out to Celtic, which left United remarkably even further short at the back compared to the previous season.
If this wasn’t enough, there was also the constant talk of David De Gea moving to Real Madrid. United’s reigning player of the year had seemingly made up his mind to move to the Bernabeu, but United stood firm and insisted that he would be sold only if Madrid met their demands. Victor Valdes fell out spectacularly with Van Gaal, and the veteran goalkeeper was exiled to train with the under 21’s and left out of the pre-season tour, during which Sergio Romero was signed as a free agent. Matteo Darmian, the Italian right back signed before the tour from Torino for 12 million, was the only addition to the United’s much maligned defence during the window, while Van Gaal had curiously decided to play Daley Blind, a central midfielder by trade, as a center-back alongside Chris Smalling.
United fans could thus be forgiven for being quite pessimistic about their team’s fortunes ahead of the season. Van Gaal took the bold step of excluding De Gea from his plans as the goalkeeper’s future was being resolved, with Romero taking his place despite having not featured in pre season and still unfamiliar amongst his teammates, and there were also question marks about whether Blind would be able to cope with the pace of Premier League forwards in an unfamiliar position. It was, in many ways, a recipe for disaster.
Except, it hasn’t really panned out that way.
United successfully shut out the opposition in the first three games of the Premier League and conceded once in their two-legged Champions League qualifying tie against Club Brugge, a freak own goal. Sergio Romero was rarely troubled in goal over the course of these games, with United’s compact defensive shape snuffing out most of the dangerous situations for the opposition. And whenever a situation arose, United’s defenders have been up to the task.
Chris Smalling has kicked on massively after his red card in the first Manchester derby last season, and has been even better this season, establishing himself as the number one center-back at the club. Now a leader at the back, Smalling is beginning to physically dominate his opponents in a consistent manner. Matteo Darmian has greatly impressed thus far at right back, displaying the tactical intelligence typically associated with Italian defenders whilst also bombing forward in attack and the same can be said of Luke Shaw, who looks to have put his fitness and injury issues of last season behind him, and the 20 year old is beginning to show why United parted with 30 million last season for his services.