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Manchester United fans: Has the club already found its next great centre-half?

All laughing aside, there does seem to be a case here...

by Graham Ruthven | August 13, 2014

When Louis Van Gaal takes charge of his first Premier League game at Old Trafford on Saturday the name of Manchester United’s most famous father will hang over his head, literally.

David Moyes struggled under the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson and the stand named after him, but Van Gaal seems better suited to the pressures and demands of the biggest job in football.

Much has changed at Manchester United since Fergie last sat in the dugout, not least the players on the pitch. Van Gaal has already overseen an exodus of talent, most notably in defence.

Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have all departed United over the summer, leaving Van Gaal somewhat shorthanded at the back. Much of the off-season transfer speculation – and there’s been a lot of it at United – has focused on the club’s search for their next great centre-back.

Who’s the centre of attention?

But what if such a player is already at United? Mats Hummels, Mehdi Benatia and Thomas Vermealen have all at one point or another been anointed as candidates to fill the position, but what about Jonny Evans?

The Northern Irishman has impressed during United’s pre-season tour of the States, taking on the role of elder statesman in an otherwise inexperienced backline. Evans excelled in commanding wins over Real Madrid and Liverpool, but his progression as an exceptional centre-back started well before the arrival of Van Gaal. In fact, the 26-year-old has been United’s best defender for the best part of two seasons.

He is the club’s next great defender in waiting, and Van Gaal knows it. He will miss out against Swansea through injury, but the Dutchman sees Evans as the lynchpin of his backline. The Northern Irishman is good with both feet, making him perfect for the central position in United’s new three-man defence.

Quality on the ball

In a system that relies so heavily on fluidity between the lines of defence, midfield and attack, Evans’ comfortability at bring the ball out from the back will be crucial.

With an average of 47.4 passes per game, Evans was United’s most prolific defensive passer last season, – making more passes than even Wayne Rooney. Van Gaal needs that quality for his philosophy to work.

With Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both right-footed United are still on the search for a left-footed centre-back to balance their backline, but any new arrival will need to fit around Evans, whether that’s Daley Blind or Marcos Rojo.

It’s not just Evans’ performances that have impressed so much in the States either. The defender has dealt well with the press politics that come alongside a managerial change. So well, in fact, that he can count himself unfortunate not to be starting the season with a certain band around his arm.

Concentrate on this bit, Jonny

For instance, when it was put to Evans that it could take time for United to hit top form this year – as was suggested by Van Gaal himself – the Northern Irishman responded with incredulity.

“We want to be winning as soon as the Swansea game comes on August 16,” he asserted. “People are saying that Manchester United can’t win the league. That is a big motivation for us. We are ready to go.” The response of a future captain, right?

Wayne Rooney was announced as United’s new captain after Tuesday night’s win over Valencia, with Darren Fletcher as vice-captain. But some would argue that Evans is the spiritual leader of the club. He deserved the official title.

Yes, he is prone to the odd lapse in concentration. And yes, at 26 years old he should have probably settled as a player quicker than he did, but neither points should taint judgment on the player Evans has become.

Dutch of class can make him better

Even still, Evans has admitted that Van Gaal’s methods are pulling him into areas and positions on the pitch he would never have thought of going before, changing the way he thinks about defending.

“The manager said to us, ‘You will find it hard,’” Evans explained about how the new 3-5-2 formation had been introduced to the United players. “Not so much the tactics but that we’d find it hard mentally because he is demanding and he wants us all to push ourselves to the limit.”

Evans was an accomplished defender before Van Gaal’s appointment, but should he stay free of injury the Dutchman could make him even better.

It’s true that Manchester United still need one or two centre-back arrivals before the transfer window closes, but the assumption that Van Gaal is looking for the club’s next great defender is a hasty one. Such a player is already at United.

  • Agree with Graham? Let us know your thoughts on United’s prospects this season in the comments section below, or on Twitter >

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