Last week, Manchester United fell to PSV Eindhoven 2-1 in the their first Knockout Stage Champions League game since 2013. It was not just a loss on the scoreboard, but the loss of the in-form defender Luke Shaw that will have a substantial impact on the team’s dynamic.
Recently, Daley Blind and Chris Smalling have been paired together as the United center-backs, but since Shaw’s horrid double leg fracture, the performances have lacked the same quality. Most (probably including Blind) do not expect him to be a long term starter in that role, yet he has certainly earned a place in the starting XI. So the question is, how will Louis Van Gaal structure his back line?
United’s options are Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind to fill in at left-back. This is a pivotal managerial decision because United clearly favor the left side when bringing the ball up the field to utilize the speed and creativity of Memphis.
The last three games has featured Argentinian defender, Marcos Rojo or Ashley Young in this position. Rojo did not have a good week. In both games, he never established himself in the offensive attack (in an age where fullbacks must get involved) and he blatantly lost his man on the second PSV goal.
In addition, ESPN FC and The Daily Mail have quoted Van Gaal saying that Rojo picked up a hamstring injury and failed to report it. On the other side, Ashley Young is much too offensive to play this role long-term.
Daley Blind spent time last season at left-back and formed impressive chemistry and assist totals with Young. He has the ability to bring an offensive flare and can match similar pace to Shaw. If Blind becomes Shaw’s season replacement, this is where Phil Jones fits in.
Phil Jones, the unfairly criticized center-back, is currently returning from a leg injury and featured briefly against Ipswich Town(Blood clot in thigh). When healthy, Jones is a fiery and aggressive defender who plays a similar style to Nicolas Otamendi.
He had a solid preseason, especially while shutting down Luis Suarez, but was sidelined almost right after. Now at 23 years old, the time is now to start truly developing an all English partnership with United’s most dominant 2015 performer, Chris Smalling.
When fit to start, Jones can slide in between Smalling and Blind to make for a quicker, sturdier, and taller defensive unit (5 of United’s 7 conceded goals have been on headers or volleys). Jones brings a similar physicality to Smalling which will mean, if nothing else, it will not be fun playing against the two center-halves.
I believe this to be the plan for United as it would continue the young mold that Van Gaal is promoting. This youth development of Memphis, Martial, Shaw, Jones, and large bunch of 25 year olds (Smalling, Schneiderlan, Darmian, Blind) are starting to build a new core that has so much promise for the Old Trafford faithful.