With the departure of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United have been left short at the back. Not only are they now short on numbers, but on quality as well, as their departure marks the loss of their two most experienced central defenders. Although Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have shown that they can ably deputise in their absence, it remains to be see how they fare when they are given the bulk of the responsibility.
Jones and Smalling in particular are two young defenders, who still have a lot to learn about playing as the main central defender. Their versatility has been their biggest undoing so far. Because they were capable of playing at right back or an emergency midfielder (in the case of Jones) they hardly ever got to play at their more natural centre back position. With Vidic and Ferdinand gone, now they will have to step up and play there.
While there is no doubt that they can certainly do a good job at the back, their development would enhance immeasurably if only they had a more experienced partner to learn from. As a result, one of the main areas that the Red Devils have targeted this summer is central defence. They might have signed Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw already, but unless they sign a centre back or two, the going will be pretty tough for them next season.
With that being said, let us take a look at the three centre backs that the Red Devils have been linked with throughout the summer. Feyenoord duo of Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi are two players who have been constantly linked with a move to Old Trafford thanks to their Dutch connection. In fact, some reports have said that the club have already agreed a fee for de Vrij. The third centre back is, somewhat surprisingly, Thomas Vermaelen whose contract with the Gunners expires at the end of the 2014/15 season.
While all three of them are undeniably talented, let us take a closer look at who fits the bill for United. The three main criteria of comparison is their defensive contribution, their threat going forward and their suitability to the club.
Defensive contribution of de Vrij, Martins Indi and Vermaelen in the League last season
|de Vrij||Martins Indi||Vermaelen|
|% of Aerial duels won||59||50||62|
(All stats per Whoscored)
The fact that de Vrij and Martins Indi were regulars for Feyenoord last season and Vermaelen was out injured for most of the season means that it isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Even then, in terms of their defensive contributions de Vrij comes out on top. Whether it is interceptions made, tackles won, clearances made or shots blocked, de Vrij comes out on top on all of them. The only area where he isn’t on top is in the percentage of aerial duels won, but even that is only marginal.
One of main reasons for Feyenoord’s success was their three-man defence and de Vrij emerged as the main man in those three and the numbers prove that. Whether it was positioning himself perfectly or timing his tackles and interceptions, de Vrij managed it all with consummate ease. Although only 22, de Vrij has shown that not only does have what it takes to be a great defender, but also a great leader on the pitch. And that is perhaps the reason why defensively, he is the best of the three players in question.
Offensive contribution of de Vrij, Martins Indi and Vermaelen in the League last season
|de Vrij||Martins Indi||Vermaelen|
(All stats per Whoscored)
As he showed against Spain, one of de Vrij’s biggest strengths is attacking the ball from set-pieces. His tendency to go forward and attack the ball, means that he is a major threat from set pieces and that is evident from the fact that only three defenders scored more than de Vrij in the Eredivise last season. Not only is he threat from set-pieces, he is also adept at starting attacks from the back.
The same is true for Vermaelen, whose forays from the back have helped score quite a few goals over the past few seasons. Although his numbers aren’t nearly as impressive as either de Vrij’s or Martins Indi’s, that is only because of his injury last time around. Even still, Vermaelen managed to finish with a passing accuracy in excess of 90, one of the best for a defender in the Premier League. Although his numbers aren’t great, Vermaelen is a constant threat not just from set-pieces but also from long range, thanks to his bullet of a left foot. As a result, he is the more potent threat attacking wise, even if last season’s stats don’t quite drive home that point.
All three of Manchester United’s current centre backs are right-footed, which means that, aside from being experienced, someone who is left-footed would be the ideal for the club. If that is the case, it is a toss-up between Martins Indi and Vermaelen. Although the Dutchman is younger, the fact that Vermaelen is accustomed to the Premier League is something that is firmly in his favour. Not only that, he also presents a less-risky proposition, even if he didn’t have the greatest of seasons, last time around.
In terms of ability at the back and going forward, de Vrij is a more all-round package. And the fact that he is only 22, also adds to his credentials. But for all his credentials on the pitch, his inexperience counts against him. Already in the World Cup, he has shown that he isn’t perfect. Seeing as how United already have three talented young centre backs, they will be looking for a more experienced head to guide them through and de Vrij isn’t that.
As a result Vermaelen just pips de Vrij to the post, by virtue of having played in the Premier League and being more experienced. The fact that he is in the last year of his contract and wouldn’t be too expensive is also in his favour, so he would be the more obvious choice for United. But if Van Gaal decides to go for two centre backs then de Vrij should be an automatic choice.
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