57 goals scored, 57 goals conceded. At least Manchester United were consistent in some ways last season with their worst performance in the goal difference column since 1990.
It was a defensive horror show pretty much from start to finish, conceding four goals in a game on five occasions and suffering a 5-0 drubbing at home by arch-rivals Liverpool.
We witnessed a litany of individual mistakes, lapses in concentration and an absence of leadership as United’s back line kept just eight Premier League clean sheets all season.
Manchester United struggled in defence last season with captain Harry Maguire (left) and Victor Lindelof (right) among those who underperformed
£40m signing from Real Madrid Raphael Varane must have wondered what was happening
It falls to new manager Erik ten Hag to restore the shot confidence in the United back line
Nobody save goalkeeper David de Gea emerged with any credit from a car crash of a campaign. Struggling captain Harry Maguire, £40million signing Raphael Varane, the unreliable Victor Lindelof – every centre-back was culpable at some point.
With new manager Erik ten Hag threatening to grab the club by the lapels and give it a good shake, defensive change is coming.
The priority purchase this summer is a dynamic central midfielder, someone like Frenkie de Jong. But signing a new central defender comes very swiftly behind, especially if Ten Hag wants to change United’s system.
They have been linked with Ajax’s talented 20-year-old defender Jurrien Timber, someone Ten Hag obviously knows well having spotted his potential and elevated him into his former team.
Timber won’t be the finished article at that age but he is nimble in covering open space, has a sound reading of the game and plenty of scope for improvement under Ten Hag’s guidance.
Jurrien Timber, the talented 20-year-old Holland and Ajax defender, could come to United
It was Ten Hag that gave Timber his breakthrough when Ajax manager
Importantly, he has been schooled in the style of football Ten Hag will attempt to bring to United – high intensity, front-foot, hard-pressing.
A £30million deal appeared close a couple of weeks ago but former manager Louis van Gaal appears to have lobbed a spanner in the works by telling Timber his international career would be affected if he signs for United.
Other potential targets are Timber’s Ajax team-mates Lisandro Martinez and Villarreal’s Pau Torres are alternatives. United will need to bring someone in at the back before August.
It’s clear their current stock of central defenders are performing considerably below the levels they should be or simply weren’t good enough in the first place.
As Sportsmail reported, Maguire will stay at the club but it’s possible Ten Hag will remove the captain’s armband from him following a calamitous 2021-22 season in which he suffered a post-Euros hangover that lasted nine months.
The England international slumped alarmingly from the strong performances seen in the lead-up to that tournament and urgent improvement is required.
We all know Maguire isn’t the fastest defender but he compensates with authority in the air and a willingness to carry the ball out of defence. But when his confidence is low, even these qualities become liabilities.
Maguire struggled all season, suffering some kind of knock-on effect from Euro heartbreak
Recent international duty offered little respite as England were thrashed 4-0 by Hungary
What Maguire needs is some help. It’s why a speedy defensive partner such as Timber would be well-suited to anticipate and defuse the danger if an opponent manages to outmanoeuvre Maguire, while the skipper handles the physical jobs.
So where does that leave Varane? As United legend Rio Ferdinand opined this week, the Frenchman must have been gobsmacked at the gulf in standards between Real Madrid and United following his move last summer.
While his old club were winning yet another Champions League crown, United just about scraped sixth spot and a return ticket into the Europa League, having crashed out of Europe to Atletico Madrid in the last-16.
‘He went from one team – the honours there tell you it was a functioning team at the top level, all players playing to their maximum consistently – and went into an absolute reverse situation where the team has zero functionality,’ Ferdinand said.
‘He went into an alien scenario where he’s going “I have not seen this since youth team football.” To go from that world class operating and culture and standard on a daily basis to what is at Manchester United is a huge, huge shift.
‘He’s probably sitting there like a rabbit in the headlights thinking “wow, what is this?”‘
Varane won 18 trophies with the Spanish side but endured a tough first season in Manchester
And Ferdinand insisted Varane looked like a ‘rabbit in headlights’ at times in his first season
Varane, a World Cup winner, must have been appalled by how lacklustre United were and powerless to do anything about it as his own standards were dragged down by everyone else.
A hamstring injury prevented him forging an effective partnership with Maguire early on, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer intended, and further spells on the sidelines later on in the season didn’t help either.
But his record when starting alongside Maguire gave cause for optimism. In 15 games together, United lost just twice and conceded less than a goal per game.
So there are the nascent signs of a solid central defensive partnership and Ten Hag may feel they compliment one another well enough to remain first-choice, or play in the back three of a 3-4-3 alongside Timber if he comes.
More likely to make way are one or both of Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly, with Phil Jones surely also on his way out to rebuild his career after serious injury.
Eric Bailly couldn’t break into the United team last season despite all their difficulties
Cristiano Ronaldo remonstrates with Victor Lindelof after United concede against Norwich
Lindelof, himself a £30m signing when he arrived five years ago, became a regular starter last year by default with Varane sidelined and played more games than surely he expected.
The Swede and Maguire just seemed to transmit nervousness between one another and there remain questions about Lindelof’s positioning and ability in the air.
If United bring in a new defender, he’ll be down to No 4 in the pecking order and it would surely be the time for a fresh start elsewhere.
The same applies to Bailly, who was left baffled that Maguire was preferred to him during the depths of last season. The Ivorian saw just 487 minutes of club football in the whole campaign, making very clear his low standing at the club.
Reports suggest United are prepared to cut their losses on Bailly, offering him up for just £8.5m, significantly less than the £30m they paid Villarreal for him in 2016. Newcastle have been linked but their response was lukewarm.
Phil Jones made a welcome return after a serious knee injury but will surely depart the club
There appears to be no way back for Bailly and he won’t be especially missed.
One returning figure is Axel Tuanzebe, who has lost his way since marking Kylian Mbappe out of the game when United beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League group stages in October 2020.
Steven Gerrard didn’t like the look of him at Aston Villa and a subsequent loan at Napoli was cut short because of back pain.
The 24-year-old’s social media posts this week have shown him working hard in the gym ahead of pre-season and this could finally be his time, especially if United offload a defender or two and don’t sign replacements.
Axel Tuanzebe had two loan spells last season but could finally make a United breakthrough
Ten Hag hasn’t objected to this ruthless clear-out of deadwood in the United squad and that should certainly continue in the back line to make way for new recruits.
United probably only need the one signing in this position and what will be more important is the new manager restoring the confidence of the defenders they’ve already got, especially Maguire.
After all, if there is repeat of last season’s defensive shambles Ten Hag will very quickly be on the path to oblivion like so many before him.
Read the full article here