Manchester United are in need of a solid centre-back to partner captain, Harry Maguire, but if they fail to sign one - should it be Eric Bailly or Victor Lindelof?
With the elongated transfer window rapidly coming to a conclusion, and the Red Devils looking increasingly unlikely to pull off any late deals, the defence continues to look like an issue for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
United spent £130m on their defence a year ago, and while the additions of Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have proved to be welcome signings; the inconsistency of the other half of the back four sparks anxiety with the dawn of the new season already passed.
Starting with Lindelof - who has shown sparks since Jose Mourinho brought him in from S.L. Benfica in 2017. He was sought-after and a long-standing interest of United, with the prospect of a good reading of the game, quick reactions and even a threat from a set-piece.
However, his recent form has transformed that highly-rated talent into a rusty, sluggish and often-underwhelming defender.
While it is true that the Swede has had several partners over his three-year spell at Old Trafford, having seen Maguire, Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones – among others – all line up alongside him, the last six months or so have really stunted the progress of the United defence, with Lindelof at the heart of it.
The poor showing at home to Crystal Palace, where he and Maguire allowed the electric Palace front-line to cut through the defence, as well as several errors since the turn of the year has thrown his starting spot into question.
United somehow find themselves with the third-best defence in the Premier League from last term, but if they want to be the best, they have to beat the best. But, despite close to £200m spent on their first-choice back four, they still look like a real comedy of errors compared to Liverpool’s outstanding quartet – a foursome that cost a fraction of the price.
Harry Maguire has earned the benefit of the doubt – for now. He rescued United from several embarrassments last term – the away trip to Norwich in the Emirates FA Cup and succeeding over Manchester City before the lockdown period. But also, Maguire brings leadership, confidence and unrelenting consistency to play every minute, despite suffering injury mid-way through the campaign.
Will Maguire ever be the ‘Virgil van Dijk’ that United supporters hoped for when he joined? Probably not – but Van Dijk had difficulties and growing pains with the youthful backline that he inherited; and the consistency of the defence has helped the Dutchman to be the most feared defender in world football.
Is there a solution?
Manchester United, despite an ethos that has forever promoted attacking football, have always had a solid defence. From Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, to Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnson, to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – but now the defence can look a shambles compared to those championship-winning units.
As an addition looks unlikely this late in the window, Solskjaer must look internally.
Eric Bailly, in his last few starts for United, has looked strong and confident, and he was reliable when called upon last season. His questionable injury record sadly is what makes him an unreliable option for now.
Axel Tuanzebe and Teden Mengi are rated very highly by United, and both have captained academy sides; Tuanzebe at every level of United football, including the first-team. Mengi has yet to make a start for the first-team, but has been promoted to the first-team squad and has trained with Solskjaer’s squad for several months now.
Ultimately, if United are to justify spending another high fee on a centre-back, such as RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano, then they must offload at the centre-back spot. Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones have all struggled to mark down spots for United over the last few years and as a result, should be seen as surplus to requirements.
If the centre-half position is an spot that can be won this year, the competition of Lindelof, Bailly, Tuanzebe and Mengi should be an exciting one.