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How Much Does A New Central Defender Really Improve Manchester United?

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How Much Does A New Central Defender Really Improve Manchester United?

Manchester United have just had their worst ever defensive season in the Premier League, but is a new centre-back really the answer to their issues?

Trying to understand United’s defensive issues is like trying to understand any other kind of paradox.

The Red Devils have one of the best shot stoppers in the Premier League in goal that has just come off one of his best shot stopping seasons, two centre-backs who in the two seasons prior to the one just gone by had the third and fourth best defensive records in the league, and last summer signed a centre-back with more quality than either of the two they had been doing quite well with.

In midfield, they often line up with a double pivot that many call ‘defensive’. So why is it that the team seemed to fall apart defensively, and is it purely down to the personnel? 

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Let’s start with the goalkeeper, David De Gea.

The Spaniard has just had one of his best ever seasons in regards to his shot-stopping, yet there is reason to believe that United are actually better off defensively with backup Dean Henderson, who is not as good a shot-stopper but brings other qualities that elevate the levels of those around him.

David de Gea and Dean Henderson have battled for the Manchester United No.1 spot. (Alamy)
David de Gea and Dean Henderson have battled for the Manchester United No.1 spot. (Alamy)

Let’s start by comparing the two goalkeepers, their play styles and their tendencies in certain situations.

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De Gea is one of the best shot-stoppers of his generation, and at one point was considered the best goalkeeper in the world because of his otherworldly ability to stop anything and everything.

He declined after the 2017/18 season, his very peak, but in the 2021/22 season seemed to rediscover that elite ability to stop shots, with many calling United reliant upon him. Whilst true, it is arguably a consequence of his own actions.

United’s No.1 rarely leaves his line to sweep up through balls in behind, defend crosses or close down attackers when chances arise for them. When his side are building from the back, he doesn’t show for the ball and is often forced to receive it.

When he does receive it, his distribution is not the most accurate or powerful and often the ball either goes back to the opponents on halfway or out of play entirely, either way ending in a restarted possession for United’s opposition.

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If United try to press high, then the defensive line becomes higher and space is left in behind. Harry Maguire in particular is a very keen player to step up, sometimes too keen. When the ball goes in behind, De Gea’s tendency to remain on his line and defend the shot means attackers are given high-quality chances.

Is it a risk to venture so far from your line as a goalkeeper? Of course, although it is arguably a bigger one to allow the player to win the ball unchallenged and take your chances on saving a shot, or to rely on your defenders to recover.

When crosses come in, his tendency not to challenge them often gives playmakers confidence to put crosses into more dangerous zones closer to goal, once again knowing he will take his chances on the save. De Gea is undoubtedly a good goalkeeper and his shot stopping cannot be argued with, but sometimes it feels as though United have to face so many shots because he does not prevent them in the first place.

Henderson is the opposite of this in many ways. Whilst a good-not-great shot stopper with some concerns in that area, Henderson is a very commanding and active goalkeeper in all of the areas De Gea isn’t.

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He contests crosses, although sometimes a little too eagerly, sweeps up play and likes to involve himself in the team’s build up, which means the side is not left at a disadvantage numerically.

Whilst not the most accurate kicker either, Henderson is a more powerful kicker than his Spanish counterpart, meaning that if the need arises to go long then United can more reliably get up the pitch, making them less susceptible to counterpressure.

In the 2020/21 season, United conceded 12 of their 44 goals in the 12 and a half games Dean Henderson was the goalkeeper for. For the 25 and a half games De Gea was the goalkeeper for, United conceded 32 goals – 0.9 goals conceded per game vs 1.2 goals conceded per game.

(Alamy)
(Alamy)
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Neither Henderson nor De Gea are perfect, and maybe neither are the answer to the side’s defensive problems, however if United’s aim is to press high and play possession football (which would align with new boss Erik Ten Hag’s traditional style of play), then maybe the keeper who’s better at saving the ball isn’t the goalkeeper who United will stop more goals with.

Fortunately for De Hea, latest reports suggest that Nottingham Forest have opened talks with Manchestr United for a loan move for Dean Henderson in mind.

Moving onto the centre-backs, it is a very polarising area.

Since Harry Maguire’s £80m transfer in 2019, he and Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelöf were the main pairing and despite inconsistencies, were a relatively solid.

Last summer, Manchester United added Raphaël Varane to the squad for around £40 million. Varane is a world-class central defender and is currently in his prime. When he was unveiled in front of the first full Old Trafford crowd since before the COVID-19 pandemic against Leeds United, it felt like a real statement signing.

United had a player who, on paper, was the perfect complement to Harry Maguire, coming off the best period of form in his entire career. Lindelöf, despite being more than a solid defender, was going from starter to first choice backup and few teams could boast a better player to have in that role.

Weirdly, it was Lindelöf who ended up having the best season of the three. Between fitness and form issues amongst his counterparts, the ‘Iceman’ started 26 matches at centre-back for United in the Premier League.

Fourteen of these were next to Maguire, but only seven ended in victory and three in a clean sheet.

Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire formed a good partnership before last season. (Alamy)
Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire formed a good partnership before last season. (Alamy)

Comparatively, he kept only one less clean sheet in six less starts next to Varane. The three of them started together in a back three just once all season, in a 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur.

Whilst availability was an issue at times between the three of them, with each failing to start 30 league matches, it is puzzling as to why United didn’t utilise this defensive setup more as it seemed to work on the occasion where it was deployed, and arguably plays to the best strengths of all three.

Whilst he can struggle physically on occasion, Lindelöf is a solid ball player with an excellent defensive brain and this is valuable. He was not supposed to start as much as he had to this season, and hopefully greater availability and form from his counterparts means he does not have to be thrown in the deep end, but it is comforting to know that United can rely on him if needed.

Harry Maguire went from the best form of his life to the worst almost unexplainably, with many wondering how a player went from being on the verge of world class to struggling to go a week without making some kind of error. Discourse surrounding the club captain hasn’t helped, with fans and haters alike going to the most extreme of extremes when arguing with one another.

His form meant that his critics were loudest though, multiple times this season Maguire was, perhaps unfairly, booed off the pitch by his own fans. Psychologically, this can have a huge impact on a player.

Some have suggested Maguire’s drop off is also partly down to burnout. Despite his poor defensive form, United still look a very different side and not necessarily a better one. Even in his poor form, Maguire is a net positive player in possession and the team struggle to progress the ball up the field without him.

Varane and Lindelöf are both very comfortable ball players, but not the most progressive, and without Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba in the line-up starting from next season, midfield progression is an issue for United.

This in many ways makes United reliant upon Maguire, which is dangerous when he is in as poor form as he has been this season. Just like in possession, Maguire has aggressive tendencies out of possession.

Harry Maguire is often seen as a more consistent performer for England. (Alamy)
Harry Maguire is often seen as a more consistent performer for England. (Alamy)

He is United’s most willing defender to step up and engage attackers, and is very strong in both ground and aerial duels, the latter especially.

Oftentime, however, he is too eager to do this and can get caught out due to poor reading of play. The most prominent example of this from recent times was in the 4-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. Often people complain about his speed, but it is more so his turning radius and acceleration which are issues when he gets beaten.

There is hope that under new boss Erik ten Hag, a coach who prefers possession football, his qualities can be put to best use and his weaknesses covered. Maguire is a good player, a very good one when he’s on form, but right now he is struggling for it and getting him back to his best should be an important task for Ten Hag.

Varane has struggled for fitness this season, and settling in on the pitch has been difficult. Coming into a new team and new league is never an easy task, and coming into as chaotic a situation as Manchester United’s is far more difficult.

With fitness issues of his own and his teammates, as well as Maguire’s poor form, it was difficult for Varane to really get settled on the pitch for United, never truly having an extended run with one set centre-back partner. But, he has certainly shown his quality. On his debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers, he picked up Man of the Match after an impressive performance in which he assisted United’s winner in a narrow 1-0 victory and at times felt like a one-man transition defence against the rampaging Adama Traoré.

Expanding on this point, this feels like a common occurrence for Manchester United’s defenders in transition, because of the poor structure and lack of natural pivot players they are often left very exposed in transitions and have more to do than they should.

United were a much better team defensively with Varane this season than without him, conceding 24 goals in his 20 starts as a pose to 33 in the 18 he did not start. Whilst he did have shaky moments and made a couple of errors, in such an exposed structure any centre-back would.

Maguire and Lindelöf have been victims of this for a few years now at United, and often people blame the centre-backs as they are an easy target when in reality the problem runs deeper. It may not have been perfect, but simply by being more available Varane could make a huge difference for United defensively next season as they look to recover from this season’s calamity.

It has been rumoured that Ten Hag will prioritise conditioning over pre–season, something that has been a problem for both United and Varane’s ex-club Real Madrid in recent years. Better physical conditioning and proper rest should see him be more available for the team next season, and that can only be a good thing for United. 

Tactically, United are simply far behind the level they should be at and the centre-backs are arguably the ones that suffer the most from this. The squad has been poorly built over many years, and thus lacks the profiles required to fill certain roles.

As mentioned previously, the goalkeeper situation plays a part in this. Another key thing is the midfield pivot. United are closing in on the signing of Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona, which should hugely improve United’s ability to progress the ball through midfield.

However, defensively there are huge issues that must be fixed in midfield. Despite the common narrative amongst fans that United play ‘two DMs’ in Scott Mctominay and Fred, neither of the two actually fit that description. They are both more resemblent of #8s, neither are players who will sit and screen the defence.

Fred and Scott McTominay have played together ahead of the defence. (Alamy)
Fred and Scott McTominay have played together ahead of the defence. (Alamy)

They both have a tendency to press high and dive into challenges high up, something you fundamentally cannot do as a pivot player. United have looked at their best defensively with the departing Nemanja Matić, a player whose positional discipline, defensive awareness and anticipation all have been at a really high level throughout his career, even in the last couple of years as his legs have started to fade.

When ‘McFred’ play together, their tendency to dive into challenges often leaves the defence far too exposed. Teams are able to play through United’s midfield far too easily as a result of this, and because they press so high up it leaves the centre-backs with an ocean of space to defend. 

With weak protection from the front and minimal support from behind, is it really the centre-backs’ faults that United have struggled defensively? Of course, they need to do better, that isn’t in question. Maguire especially must improve his form drastically.

But how much difference does a new starting centre-back make? Do they magically fix all these issues? Or will they just be a shiny new toy to play with that encounters the same issues as previous ones?

United’s current centre-backs have all shown that at their best they are very good players. Varane is one of the best players the position has ever seen, Maguire was a standout player for England at multiple big international tournaments as well as key to United in his first two seasons, and key to Leicester before that.

Lindelöf has become a solid, dependable centre-back for his club and maybe his country’s most important player. Is the issue the individuals, or the situations the individuals are forced into on a weekly basis because of the failings of those around them?

Under Erik Ten Hag, Manchester United must implement a better defensive structure. They must fix a midfield that has been neglected for far too long, not just by signing Frenkie de Jong and expecting him to magically fix everything himself. He will need a partner, of the current options Fred is the one best suited to partner him but in the long run United need to improve.

They must also sort out the goalkeeper situation, David de Gea cannot continue to play in the way he has played if he wants to fit Ten Hag’s style. Either he must adapt, or Henderson must be given the gloves. If Henderson is deemed to not be the right man for the job, he is both a more valuable and more easily sellable asset than De Gea - who’s overly-lucrative contract runs out next year - and can be replaced with someone better.

If all of this is done and the centre-backs are still not good enough, then the club will know whether or not a new signing is required. But if United are serious about getting back to where they belong, they must first put their efforts into creating a better structure and buying players who fit this structure.


Featured Image Credit: Alamy

Topics: Manchester United, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Raphael Varane, David De Gea, Dean Henderson

Yusuf Haq
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