The left-back position has become something of a quandary for United in recent times. Last season, out of all United players it was left-back Patrice Evra who came in for the harshest criticism with fans bemoaning his defensive capabilities. A growing view is that Evra’s best days are behind him – that may well be the case – and that it is time for United to move the much-liked Frenchman on. Many fans seemingly want Evra replaced, seeing him as a ‘weak link’ of the side with Everton’s Leighton Baines being widely touted as a potential replacement. However, has Evra been so bad that United must immediately replace him? Or could the Frenchman continue to do a serviceable job for another season?
I am of the opinion that Evra’s loss of form has been greatly exaggerated although I do accept the widely-held notion that his form over the last couple of seasons hasn’t lived up to the high standards that the French left-back set between 2006/07 and 2009/10. During this period, Evra appeared in the PFA Team of the Season on three occasions – 06/07, 08/09 and 09/10 – as well as being named in both the Uefa Team of the Season and the FifPro World XI in 2009. In the 2007/08 Champions League Semi Final tie vs. Barcelona, he excellently shackled Lionel Messi as United kept clean-sheets in both legs. Quite easily, Evra could lay claims on being the world’s best left-back during this period.
Undoubtedly, however, his form has declined; Evra has been caught out positionally on a number of occasions and has also suffered from costly lapses in concentration. At other times, he’s been slow getting back after going forward or has failed to track runs from opposition wingers. Blame could be attributed to Evra for at least 3 of the half-dozen City scored in the 6-1 derby defeat at Old Trafford – boy, does it hurt to type that out – as well as countless others including Dirk Kuyt’s winner for Liverpool in the FA Cup tie last season and a fair few of Bilbao’s goals in the Europa League ties. And despite Evra contributing more assists (5), which interestingly was one more than purported United target Leighton Baines, last season than in any other season since he arrived at the club, it has appeared that he has lacked the same drive going forward. His marauding, lung-busting runs which sucked in defenders, thereby creating space for the wingers and strikers, have become less of an occurrence.
However, I also feel that criticism of Evra has gone too far on occasions. Some fans appear to expect Evra to block every cross from coming into the box; others are ready to pounce at the slightest mistake. It’s also not helped that his mistakes have generally come in high-profile games. In his defence, there have been mitigating factors which could explain his loss of form. Over the last couple of seasons, there have been off-the-field distractions for the Frenchman. Firstly, the fall-out from Les Bleus 2010 World Cup campaign which spilled over into the 2010/11 season with Evra being one of a multiple of players being punished – Evra received a 5 match ban – by ex-Reds centre-back and then French manager Laurent Blanc for his indiscretions in South Africa.
Then last season, through no fault of his own, he found himself at the centre of a racism storm as the recriminations from Luis Suarez’s 8 game ban for racially abusing Evra in the October league game at Anfield continued throughout the season. Evra found his reputation muddied as, quite ludicrously, Liverpool fans and some sections of the media branded him a liar who had made similar and unfounded accusations in the past (all incorrect). The Frenchman also had to deal with the untimely passing of his brother. Yes, top-level sportsmen are renowned for their ability to compartmentalise, leaving any off-field distractions as exactly that. However, is it really too much to say that the Suarez affair may have affected his performances last season?
Secondly, over the last 5 seasons, the Frenchman has played a staggering 265 games for club and country: an average of 53 games a season. Just as a quick comparison, Ashley Cole has played 256 games over the same period, Gael Clichy 205 games and Baines 185 games. At United, ever since the departure of Gabriel Heinze in 2007, Evra has been virtually unchallenged for the left-back position which could even have led to the Frenchman becoming complacent. Fabio da Silva, Rafael’s twin brother who was originally touted as the better of the pair, has seemingly spent more time in the treatment room than on the training pitch and has now gone to QPR on a season-long loan. With little competition, Evra has been afforded little rest; United have lacked someone who can slot in at left-back from time to time to give Evra a much-needed break. Considering that the modern full-back requires quite possibly the highest levels of stamina of any position, it would be no surprise if, at his age (31), Evra was both physically and mentally shattered after the last 5 years. With fatigue come the lapses of concentration that have proved to be extremely costly.
Thirdly, I feel that it’s more than just a coincidence that Evra’s decline has coincided with the decline of United’s central-midfield. Between 07/08 and 09/10, the central-midfield often contained at least one, if not two, of Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher. All three are mobile and thus provided cover and assistance for the full-backs. Over the last couple of years, United have often had to rely on Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes for large chunks of the season, midfielders who are undoubtedly great players with the ball at their feet. Carrick also plays an important defensive role for the team; sitting in front of the back four, he acts as a shield with his excellent reading of the game allowing him to intercept passes. Yet, it is also fair to say that Carrick is not the most mobile of players. With United’s midfield often lacking the tenaciousness of an Anderson, Fletcher or Hargreaves at his pomp, the full-backs are often exposed, left to defend more and more in one-on-one situations. I believe that if United acquired a ‘runner’ in central-midfield, or even if – and it’s a big if -Tom Cleverley or Anderson managed to stay fit, then the concerns over Evra may well disintegrate.
Patrice Evra – Honours Roll
- Premier League (4)
2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2010–11
- League Cup (3)
2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10
- UEFA Champions League (1)
- Coupe de la Ligue (1)
Yet with Evra now 31, talk has inevitably turned to United finding a replacement for him. As already mentioned, United, according to various newspapers, maintain an interest in Everton’s Leighton Baines. Should United go out and splash £15 million on Baines at a time when these funds could be best spent elsewhere? I have my doubts over whether this would be a sensible option for United. Firstly, Baines, who turns 28 in December, isn’t going to provide a long-term solution at left-back. Secondly, I also have severe doubts as to whether he’s good enough for United. Memories remain of the way in which Antonio Valencia easily shoulder-barged him to the ground in the 2010/11 Old Trafford league game. In addition, Baines has been unable to overtake Ashley Cole as England’s number one left-back. Granted, Cole is one of the top three left-backs in the world but Baines isn’t in the same class. In contrast, Evra consistently out-performed the Chelsea left-back in his first four years at United.
Central midfield remains a higher priority and would perhaps – as mentioned above – even solve some of Evra’s problems. Such a move would also practically consign the Frenchman to the Old Trafford dust heap. It is hard to imagine that Baines would be happy to come to Old Trafford to play second fiddle to Evra; and United aren’t going to pay the reported £15 million that Everton are seeking as compensation for a back-up. It would seem silly to sign Baines this summer only to see Evra move on and produce a wonderful season elsewhere or for Fabio to have a fantastic season at QPR only to come back and find the door to the United first-team blocked by Baines. Buying the Everton left-back would seem to send out the wrong message to Fabio; almost as if he isn’t viewed as the long-term solution at left-back.
So in my mind, Baines isn’t the answer yet United must also attempt to lessen Evra’s workload in order to keep him fresh. However, with the departure of Zeki Fryers leaving Evra as the only recognised left-back in the United first-team squad, the position presents something of a dilemma for Sir Alex Ferguson. The manager has spoken of the possibility of using Robbie Brady – who normally occupies a left-wing position – as cover for Evra whilst he also has the option of promoting the talented but raw and unproven Tyler Blackett from the youth team. There’s also the possibility that either Jonny Evans or Phil Jones could fill in there in times of emergency or to give Evra a rest.
Whilst none of these options appear wholly convincing, I don’t think there is a huge need for United to invest in a new left-back this summer. The time to replace Evra could at least be postponed until next summer. The Frenchman, particularly if central-midfield is strengthened and gets a well-earned rest occasionally, can still do a serviceable job at left-back next season. And if he doesn’t perform next season, then next summer United have the option of either dipping into the transfer market or giving Fabio – who hopefully gains significant Premier League experience next season with QPR – the left-back spot.
Do you agree/disagree with my views? Let me know by commenting below!