Before the start of this season if you asked Manchester United fans to pick key moments to define the career of Jonny Evans I can’t imagine too many of them would be complimentary. For me the two that really stand out were the 4-0 defeat to bottom of the table West Ham in 2010 and then the red card in the 6-1 derby humiliation last season. The former especially confirmed for me at the time something I had been thinking for nearly two seasons. When Sir Alex Ferguson let Gerard Piqué re-join Barcelona in 2008 he should have looked to replace him with another young centre half rather than relying on Evans. This season however I, like so many others, have been forced to eat my words as Evans has rapidly become one of the more regular features in the Manchester United side topping the Premier League table and whilst he is still nowhere near the level of Piqué his rise over the last season or so certainly deserves recognition.
Last season after the derby you could argue the pressure on Evans became magnified and every mistake under even further scrutiny. When Nemanja Vidic suffered an injury towards the end of the season it was Evans who stepped up to the plate and his performances were largely impressive. The partnership he formed with Rio Ferdinand was key to United’s late (if ultimately unsuccessful) title challenge. This season with Vidic suffering further injuries and the two men who were tipped to replace him Phil Jones and Chris Smalling also spending some time in the physio’s room it has been Evans who has featured regularly alongside Ferdinand. Whilst Ferdinand has made 23 appearances this season Evans follows closely in second with 19 whilst Vidic and Smalling have 15 each and Jones is further behind with just 10.
The improvement of Evans has seen him emerge as the leading candidate to break the Ferdinand/Vidic monopoly and many fans will argue that that monopoly has already been broken. Both players are ageing and not what they were a few seasons ago (even if Ferdinand has had a very good season) and playing one of them alongside the younger Evans, Jones and Smalling seems to be the way forward for United. Before last season Evans had only scored one Premier League goal for United but this season he has already scored three times to vastly improve his goal tally. In comparison Ferdinand has only scored once this season in the league whilst Vidic, Smalling and Jones are all yet to register.
Of all of United’s defenders only Ferdinand has a better average pass ratio than Evans whilst no United centre back has created more chances than the Northern Irishman. When placed in direct comparison with Ferdinand and Vidic Evans scores extremely highly. He has made four times as many key passes per game than Vidic and twice as many as Ferdinand whilst he averages more passes each game than the other two as well. This supports the emerging theory that Evans is seen as the new ball playing centre half at Old Trafford with his technical ability and speed. He has the ability to move forward with the ball before releasing other players and his influence in United attacks are becoming more and more apparent.
He’s already received glowing endorsements from Sir Alex Ferguson this season with the United boss labelling him as one of the best centre halves in the country. Whilst this may seem a little far-fetched in terms of value to the side it actually isn’t too far from the truth. According to the Premier League’s average points per game ranking of all players to have started more than 15 games so far there is no one more valuable than Jonny Evans. That’s not just Manchester United players that is every single club. Evans currently averages 2.68 points per game which is higher than Robin van Persie (2.42), Wayne Rooney (2.32) and his City counterpart Matija Nastasic (2.11).
One of the greatest traits that anyone who follows football should possess is the ability to admit when you’re wrong. Football fans should also be able to change their perceptions of players as they develop. Casing point, most people will have seen the Daily Mail article from 2009 that has been flying around the internet over the past few months (if you haven’t it is here Bale to be offloaded to Birmingham City) which stipulated that Spurs “flop” Bale would be sold to Birmingham after a difficult start to his Tottenham Hotspur career. A year or so ago people were thinking Evans might be dispensed with in similar fashion but now he is at the top of the game and this season he has rewarded his manager’s faith. His greatest performance in my opinion came in Spain at the Bernabeu when United drew 1-1 with Real Madrid. David de Gea stole the plaudits that night but for me the man of the match was Evans. He gave a master class in defending when your team has their backs to the wall and for me it confirmed just how far he has come.