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Is there a centre-back crisis at Manchester United?

Numbers don’t lie. They provide absolute truth in a world swarming with uncertainty. There’s a substantial level of comfort to be found in numbers, even for somebody like myself who hates anything to do with mathematics.

That is why, perhaps, the footballing sphere is convincingly laced with – or maybe even crowned by – statistics.

You can’t get away from them. They’re everywhere. From informal pub chat to Sky Sports commentators, we see points backed up and accentuated through numbers. Given their a priori nature we have to accept them; we don’t have much of a choice.

Subsequently, a subjective opinion based on personal experience is brutally pushed aside by fact, thus creating a situation where an opinion without a stat is now seen as unsubstantial. Numbers have a watertight grasp on the beautiful game.

The combined numbers for Chris Smalling and Daley Blind after the 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur read as follows:

87% pass accuracy; 10 clearances; 6 tackles won; 5 interceptions; 5 blocks.

A good defensive display from a mathematical perspective, punctuated further by the clean sheet.

However, anybody that saw United’s season opener with Spurs will tell you that these numbers are wildly erroneous.

United’s central defence remains uncontrollably shaky despite Louis van Gaal’s £80m spending spree this summer, which goes to show that numbers are deceptive little rascals. They don’t lie to you, granted, they just don’t tell you the full side of the story either.

Most United fans agree that centre-back is the most destitute, crooked area that, if not addressed properly, will preclude United’s title chances this season, which translates into what we call a centre-back crisis.

But is this true? Are United doomed if they stick with their current crop of centre-backs, or can this apparent flimsiness be rectified?

In a game largely emblematised by anxious lethargy, new signing Morgan Schneiderlin was a rampant, effervescent force in front of the defence, growing in size as everything around him slowly subsided into deep indolence.

The Frenchman was an undetected but vital aspect of United’s win on Saturday, and deserves most of the credit for his side’s first opening day clean sheet in five years.

So while United’s centre-back problem remains, the issue of failing to find a brutish defensive midfielder looks to have been resolved.

Schneiderlin, through his propensity for being a rampaging nuisance, has alleviated a considerable amount of pressure that has rested on the shoulders of United’s back line for some time. His introduction belies the popular notion of Louis van Gaal failing to introduce any form of defensive firmness this summer.

While many around him show grave signs of terminal regression, Chris Smalling is now encountering the apogee of his career at United. A once maligned straggler is now, alongside the likes of Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, part of an exciting vanguard who have regenerated themselves under the Dutchman.

At 25, Smalling is a burgeoning dictator at the back with a commanding, no-nonsense attitude who, with an appropriate defensive partner, could be the focal point of United’s backbone this season. And while Daley Blind is not an adequate defensive partner for Smalling, Marcos Rojo is.

Amid widespread calls for a new centre-back, United fans are forgetting about the man Louis van Gaal signed for this specific reason a year ago. Rojo, an enthusiastic, left footed browbeater, hasn’t done much wrong since arriving at Old Trafford. Overlooking the Argentine and frantically calling for somebody else is extremely unfair.

Smalling and Rojo are a stoic, commanding, duo. But with both prone to the occasional fit of brashness and volatility, it’s hardly the holy grail of centre-back pairings either.

So while Saturday may have provided scant semblance of any handiness at centre-back, United’s defensive prospects aren’t descending into the mire like most are suggesting. Having said that, they’re far from perfect.

Regardless, constant focus on the subject repudiates what United as a club stands for. United’s title prospects need to based on whether they have enough attacking zeal as opposed to whether they have sufficient quality at centre-back.

Chelsea’s title charge last season was underpinned by defensive stability and it proved irksome for everyone. United, however, base their footballing ethos on a vigorous, offensive approach that places emphasis on scoring goals rather than focusing on how to thwart teams.

United don’t have a centre-back crisis; Louis van Gaal has a set of centre-backs who, much to the annoyance of United fans, harbour an unwelcome habit of unpredictability – but it’s not a crisis.

Instead, in the interest of the club’s inherent attacking culture and for the sanctity of football in general, United fans ought to centralise their focus on the attacking stores at Louis van Gaal’s disposal and, stats aside, judge whether United’s front line possesses enough verve to mount a title challenge.

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By Leo Nieboer

Mourning the loss of Danny Welbeck

5 replies on “Is there a centre-back crisis at Manchester United?”

Good read, Leo.

Whilst things need to be tidied up a bit at centre-back, the real, real problem with United is in the goal scoring department. Remember about four seasons ago when United often conceded early goals only to come storming back to win 3-2 or 4-2? The back line is only under strong scrutiny because goals have dried up at the other end. All the great United teams going right back to the days of Sir Matt were never the tightest in defence but they could be guaranteed to compensate with an attacking style of play.

The current issue at United is not that the players aren’t good enough. It’s that van Gaal’s cautious, conservative, dare I say dated, micro-managing style has the propensity to stifle flair and spontaneity in favour of detailed structure and the strict following of instructions.This micro-managing has produced predictable performances and Premier League managers from lesser teams have worked out how to combat United’s approach.

Van Gaal needs to loosen the straitjacket and as Shakespeare said, “Let slip the dogs of war.”

as lvg put it, we need speed and creativity in attack. when we have these
the goals will come.

blind is important in building play from the back. which is needed in
possession focused football

The talk of a centre back crisis is complete nonsense. What is lacking in the united back line is continuity and consistency. Gerard pique left united because he couldn’t get a game why? Because week in week out Ferdinand and vidic were on the pitch. A consistent back four is what we need

Blind will outperform the low expectations. Intelligent build up play from the back is vital in the Dutch system, which is why Jonny Evans is not a good fit. Having said that, the United back line will struggle physically in set pieces.

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