As season’s go, 2014/15 isn’t so much summed up by the word ‘transition’ as it is completely defined by it. After releasing, selling or loaning ten members of the squad presided over by everyone’s favourite try-hard David Moyes last summer, his successor spent much of this past season tinkering with his new toys in an effort to discover his most effective line-up. It’s led to an immediate return to the top four under Louis van Gaal alongside and a season of uneven football, marked by the peaks of surging victories at Anfield and a 4-2 defeat of Manchester City and the troughs of a hammering at Goodison Park and some desperately placid possession-based football. It’s been good, but not great; a welcome progression from a season of misery under the Scot, but not quite as strong as many hoped.
Another summer rebuild beckons, with loanee Radamel Falcao already prodded out of the club, Memphis Depay signed from PSV Eindhoven and several high-profile entrances on the cards. But before the hard work starts in earnest, how did last season’s bunch fare on an individual level? In part 1 of our player reviews, we look at United’s shotstoppers and defenders.
David de Gea – Fresh from picking up his second successive Player of the Year award for a club that he could well be leaving this summer, United’s current number 1 could easily wind up being the highest-profile exit of this transfer window. Van Gaal has made United’s standpoint clear; they want De Gea to stay, and he has been offered a lot of money to do so. Of course, the pull of Real Madrid knows no bounds, and given the Spaniard’s superb form over the last few years, it’s difficult to see this situation panning out in a way that doesn’t end with a move to Spain. Club captain Iker Casillas might have some issue with being pushed out to pasture, which appears to be the only stumbling block, but De Gea’s acrobatics, confidence in possession and incredible reaction saves make it easy to see why Real consider him to be the heir to San Iker’s throne.
This season: United’s best player this season by some distance; a comforting ever-present.
Next Season: Most likely a Real player.
Victor Valdes – De Gea’s injury against Arsenal in the season’s penultimate game gave Valdes his first taste of football in a United jersey, which was a long time coming having signed as a free agent in January. With his compatriot’s future as the club’s first choice keeper far from certain, it’s comforting that United are already in possession of a more-than capable replacement, at least. A long lay-off hasn’t blunted his abilities, with two excellent reaction saves on show in the season closer against Hull City, but a susceptibility to crosses in the same game poses a slight, eerily familiar worry.
This season: Benchwarmer.
Next season: Could start as no.1.
Anders Lindegaard – Almost certainly a goner when the season ends. Lindegaard isn’t quite on the calamitous level of some of the club’s less celebrated ‘keepers (looking at you, Massimo Taibi), but his chances of dislodging De Gea and/or Valdes next summer are non-existent. Good time to leave.
This season: Squad filler.
Next season: Should go elsewhere for first team football.
Rafael – A casualty of Van Gaal’s insistence on playing with intuition as opposed to instinct. Even before a rib injury sustained on reserve duty cut his season short, the exit door has been looming large for some time for Rafael, given his manager’s preference for Antonio Valencia at right back. It’s a shame; the Brazilian is highly likeable, and had shown signs of putting his promise into practice in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final year in charge with a series of energetic, purposeful and defensively disciplined performances, but having been deemed surplus to requirements last summer, he’s unlikely to survive this year’s squad cull.
This season: Untrusted, injured and benched.
Next season: Likely to be sold this summer.
Luke Shaw – Injuries have disrupted Shaw’s season no end since his summer arrival from the South Coast, but recent performances at left back in defeats at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park have been encouraging. There’s a sense that he’s starting to look like he belongs at the club after the unwanted attention of having being off the pace due to fitness issues during last summer’s tour, and after a summer’s rest, there will surely be more to come after a challenging debut season.
This season: Flashes of his talent amongst fitness and injury problems.
Next season: Should look to make the left back slot his own.
Phil Jones – Still a somewhat confounding presence after four seasons at the club, Jones is probably United’s most gifted central defender, yet a spate of self-inflicted injuries from over-zealous challenges and inconsistent form are keeping him from nailing down a place in the starting XI. He’s unlikely to be sold this summer, and given his age (23), time’s on his side, but Van Gaal isn’t likely to hand him a place in his plans on merit. Of course, the salmon-style diving header against Arsenal hasn’t done him any damage.
This season: The increasingly usual concoction of frustration, desperate tough-tackling and his trademark Bull-in-a-China-Shop approach to defending. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.
Next season: Needs to establish himself or he’ll simply be padding out the squad.
Marcos Rojo – Hardly a defensive lynchpin since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon, but Rojo has been one of United’s more dependable options at centre back this season. Sightings of him encouraging and shepherding Paddy McNair during the youngster’s baptisms of fire this season were heartening, and the team do tend to win more often with him than without. Certainly Van Gaal’s sort of player thanks to his ability to also slot in at left back, and his drive and commitment when donning the red shirt is endearing.
This season: Unremarkable but dependable option in the centre of defence.
Next season: Hasn’t nailed down a position in the back four, but sure to stake a claim.
Jonny Evans – It’s tough to see where Evans fits in should United strengthen their defensive options this summer, as they’re widely expected to. The Northern Irishman has looked the least confident and dependable of the club’s current centre backs, and an 8-game ban for spitting at Papiss Cisse hardly helped. It’s disappointing; Evans is, after all, a product of United’s academy, but if one of the club’s defenders has to be culled to make room for a newcomer this summer, then it should be him. News of interest from Everton is encouraging, in that sense.
This season: Failed to kick on from the loss of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
Next season: The most at-risk of the club’s centre backs. Might need to prepare for life away from United.
Chris Smalling – Credit where it’s due; having essentially scuppered his side’s chances of getting a result at the Etihad thanks to two foolish bookings in November’s Manchester derby, Smalling has responded with a consistent batch of performances in 2015. A recent contract extension is proof of his presence in Van Gaal’s plans, and a return of four goals (the same as both Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, no less) has been most welcome. One look at Everton ripping United to shreds on the counter at Goodison Park is yet further proof of the need for a defensive marshal to help Smalling deal with such situations, but at present, out of all of United’s centre backs, he looks the most likely to retain his place in next season’s side.
This season: Needs a more experienced presence head alongside him, but has looked the best of the bunch at centre back.
Next season: Should look to form a solid partnership with whoever Van Gaal brings in.
Antonio Valencia – The Ecuadorian, dubbed the Premier League’s fastest player by Sky Sports, no less, became Van Gaal’s first choice at right back purely due to the manager’s clear lack of faith in Rafael, but Valencia hasn’t provided much in the way of concrete evidence to suggest that he has a permanent place in this United side. Versatility is never a bad thing in a Van Gaal side but the former Wigan winger still struggles to deliver accurately (or at all) when working on the right flank, and his defensive instincts can leave a lot to be desired at times. He’s played a role this season, and an ability to carry out his manager’s instructions must be taken into account, but he shouldn’t be surprised should he become more familiar with the bench next term.
This season: Van Gaal’s first choice right back by chance. Still limited, still chasing his form of 2011/12.
Next season: Squad member, or could be sold. Hardly his fault, but there are better players out there.
Paddy McNair – Thrown in at the deep end early on this season after several defensive injuries, and did well. Struggled in several games since, the apex of which was an undignified first half substitution away to Southampton, but has looked confident in running the ball out from defence and exploiting space. May find opportunities limited next season, but worth hanging on to. The mind does wonder how his teammate and U21 team captain Tom Thorpe would have managed in his stead, however.
This season: Coped as well as he could with being thrown in at the deep end.
Next season: Shouldn’t expect to be more involved but hasn’t ruined his chances of a career at the club.
Tyler Blackett – Similar to McNair, Blackett took his chance due to injuries in the season’s infancy and did his best during a difficult period. There’s little that screams ‘certain starter’ in Blackett’s play, and the uncertain nature of his recent substitute appearance against Arsenal suggests he is still uncomfortable at this level. Which is fair; he has time to work on that.
This season: Featured infrequently after an early spate of injuries abated.
Next season: Should expect to be less involved with less injuries in the squad.