Manchester United will begin their pre-season tour of 2017 in the United States of America, and the preparations are already underway in the UCLA campus, where the club will be based between the 10th and 22nd of July.
The Red Devils have made two key additions in the transfer market and there is a consensus that the club will sign at least two more ahead of the new season—to bolster their first team squad enough to compete in five different competitions. The newly-joined pair have already created a buzz around social media—the recent announcement of 24-year old Romelu Lukaku’s much-anticipated arrival has boosted the spirits around United, given the circumstances the striker was signed under.
While United fans are familiar with the playing style of the Belgian after facing him on more than 10 separate occasions, the focus will be on their first signing of the transfer window, Victor Lindelöf. It is expected that Jose Mourinho will be looking to integrate the Swede into the first team alongside 22-year old Eric Bailly, which could well become his preferred center-back partnership for the foreseeable future.
But Manchester United, though lightweight in a few areas of the pitch, are fairly well stocked in central defence, probably the best in the country—in terms of the sheer depth of options available to them—which has been key to their admirable defensive record in the last three seasons.
Beyond Bailly and Lindelof, there is the luxury to choose between three established international center-backs in Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, and further down the pecking order, Daley Blind, who is equally adept at left-back, and a young Axel Tuanzebe, who had evidently impressed the manager in the tail-end of last season, as the sixth option at the back.
Of those, Marcos Rojo is still recovering from an injury he suffered last season which will also rule him out for the better part of United’s taxing schedule in pre-season and by extension, the opening weeks of 2017/18. That leaves the Portuguese with two senior back-up center-halves (Smalling and Jones) to choose from, when they need rotating in the more important games.
Jones and Smalling—25 and 27 respectively, are now two of the more senior players at the club and more importantly, two out of only six players who have won at least a Premier League title.
Under Mourinho, a manager with a reputation for helping defenders do better than they are normally capable of, the pair have had disappointing individual campaigns this past season, accruing less than 20 starts each, struggling with injuries, and having a delayed recovery & rehabilitation, much to the manager’s chagrin.
Phil Jones made 17 starts in the league in 2016/17, and barring a brief period between November and January when he excelled at the heart of United’s back four with Argentine Marcos Rojo, the English international found himself injured for the second time only to be sidelined for seven games in April, returning to the squad for the last four fixtures – of which United only won one, on the final day.
Chris Smalling, on the other hand, had a woefully bad season, made to look even worse after winning the Player’s Player of the Year award in the FA Cup winning campaign under Louis van Gaal. His slide has been more dramatic yet not entirely unexpected. Smalling’s decline began in the FA Cup semi-final last season when he conceded an own goal, and his red card in the final only accelerated the downfall.
On the pitch, he was poor on the ball, lacking confidence and conviction in every defensive action he made. Off it, a rift soon followed when Jose Mourinho called the center-back out on his lack of commitment to the first team more than once. As early as November, Mourinho was quoted saying:
“Smalling doesn’t feel that he can play 100% with his pain. Shaw told me this morning that he was not able to play. There is a difference between the brave, who want to play at any cost, and the ones for whom a little pain can make a difference. We have players on the pitch with problems. In every sport, how many times do you play and you’re not 100%?”
Criticism of a similar vein was leveled at the defender in April once again, when he got injured and as a result missed almost the entire month – at a time when Mourinho was looking for alternatives to try and navigate an arduous nine-game fixture list in the span of 30 days, unscathed. In a 64-game season, Chris Smalling ended up making just over 35 appearances, and played the full 90 minutes in the Premier League a mere 12 times (18 appearances). In fact, the center-half has clocked over 2000 minutes only twice in the last five years at United.
Smalling and Jones, looking past Rojo, understandably look dependable third and fourth choice options on paper given their longevity at the club, but on the pitch where it matters, Jose Mourinho may rue not adding another central defender in this transfer window.