The FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea concluded a largely depressing season for Manchester United, one that offered improvement in the Premier League and a number of satisfying wins, but also disjointed, functional football and wild inconsistency. Perhaps the most disheartening sight when perusing Jose Mourinho’s starting lineup at Wembley was a defence consisting of two moderate wingers in the full back positions and Chris Smalling and Phil Jones centrally. All four have, in the five seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, demonstrated that they are steady but unremarkable performers, first team players who should be squad options. Jones, in particular, has struggled for fitness and it was his double mistake that led to the match winning penalty. Two seasons into his tenure and Mourinho still trusts the old, inadequate guard above all others.
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This season was supposed to be the time for the Portuguese to finally field his own handpicked central defence, at last upgraded, and yet ten months later it is Fergie’s signings who he favours the most. Eric Bailly, purchased from Villarreal, is highly talented and has largely excelled in his two years at United, but fitness issues have significantly limited his contribution, as has a late-season fall-out of sorts with his manager. The Portuguese’s other defensive acquisition is the Swede Victor Lindelof from Benfica, but last pre-season it was immediately apparent that the 22 year-old was desperately off the pace and having lost his manager’s trust early on has since been fighting to regain it. His appearances in 17/18 have been sporadic, totalling 29 in all competitions and, whilst his game clearly improved as the season progressed, in the matches that mattered Mourinho mostly reverted to revolving combinations of Bailly, Smalling and Jones. Lindelof has made 19 international appearances since rising to prominence with his performances in the 2015 UEFA Under-21 Championship, a tournament for which he was only called up after an injury to an incumbent, and he excelled in the two-legged World Cup playoff tie with Italy. Now 23, he has time on his side, but much work to do to prove to his manager that he can be a medium-term solution to a long-term problem.
If there’s one position that United have plenty of bodies it is at centre back, even if none have consistently excelled.
With Jones and Smalling preferred for the FA Cup Final and Bailly and Lindelof at least considered to be viable alternates, one wonders where Marcos Rojo stands. His role at the club is a genuine curiosity. The fans like him for his commitment and physicality, even if most accept that he is no more than a solid centre back and a truly dreadful left back. Plagued by fitness issues, most recently the cruciate ligament injury sustained in April 2017, the Argentine made only 12 appearances last season and even when fit remained largely unused. Normally this would suggest that his days at the club were numbered, but in March United gave Rojo a contract extension until 2021, with an option for a further year. It remains a decision that is difficult to explain and the defender’s position in the pecking order under Mourinho appears even less certain than Lindelof’s.
It feels like a sorry state of affairs that after two years under Mourinho United seem no closer to solving their centre back issues. Last season they conceded more shots on goal than any of the other top six sides, a natural consequence of a malfunctioning unit, inadequate full backs and uncertainty and a lack of match-fit top class talent in the middle of the defence. The Portuguese has some big decisions to make this summer. Does he sign yet another centre back or should he stick with the options he has? Reports suggest that he favours the former, with Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld a target. Whatever transpires, Mourinho will know that the only route to improving his current options is through coaching. Jones, Smalling and Rojo have, however, most likely already hit their performance ceiling and the temptation must be there to jettison at least one of his five senior central defenders, either to make space for a new signing and/or to raise funds to strengthen other positions.
In the cases of Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly there is little they can now do to influence their manager. Jones, Rojo and Lindelof will, however, all be featuring at the World Cup, where Mourinho will be doing media work. All may be playing for their futures, although one suspects that the Portuguese has seen enough of Jones to have formed a definitive opinion. Rojo will hope to use the tournament to demonstrate a full recovery from his injury, but his surprising new contract suggests that he is likely to survive a cull.
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Victor Lindelof would appear to be the defensive option with the most to gain in Russia, where Sweden face Germany, South Korea and Mexico in Group F. At 23 and with only two top-level senior seasons behind him he has the most scope for improvement. Fan opinion seems to be split on his chances of becoming the player we hoped the club had signed. To do so he must add greater positional awareness, agility and aggression to his game. A self-confessed avid watcher of Liga NOS, Mourinho will have seen enough of the Swede in Portugal to conclude that he has high potential. Perhaps last season knocked that belief, but Lindelof now has the platform this summer to remind his manager why he brought him to the Premier League and rise to the challenge of any new signing in his position. United supporters, sick of watching Smalling and Jones usurp all-comers, will be hoping for a tournament of excellence from the newly married Swede and a solid, injury-free contribution from Marcos Rojo.