Under interim manager, Ole Gunner Solksjaer, Swedish international Victor Lindelof has been Manchester United’s number one centre half. The club have a further four potential first team centre halves in the squad, we ask the question, who should be Lindelof`s full time partner in the heart of the defence?
With the exception of Marcos Rojo who has barely played this season due to injury, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly have all partnered Lindelof at some point during Solksjaer`s reign. We look at those three players and see who deserves to be picked in the red devils defence.
Unfortunately for Smalling, injuries have hampered his chances of nailing down a regular spot in defence. However, the Londoner played the full 90 minutes in United`s 2-0 FA Cup victory at Stamford Bridge and impressed with the way he handled an attack of Edin Hazard, Pedro and Gonzalo Higuain.
History will say that Smalling is the most likely to partner Lindelof having been at the club since 2010 and playing over 300 games for United. He signed a contract extension in December committing his future at Old Trafford until 2021-2022 season.
However, for every 9/10 performance like against Chelsea, there is always a 2/10 around the corner. Smalling has been prone to switching off in games and picking up reckless red cards like in the Manchester derby at the Ethiad a couple of seasons ago. Despite his height, strikers can get the leap on the defender and there is always a feeling amongst supporters that there is a mistake in him just around the corner.
Smalling never feels comfortable with the ball at his feet. Whenever he receives the ball he cannot get rid of it quick enough. Defenders these days have to be comfortable with the ball at their feet regularly picking the ball up from their goalkeeper. Days of a keeper kicking the ball long upfield have gone but Smalling is no Rio Ferdinand, a player who cooly brought the ball out of defence and could spread the play with a pass. This was the reason behind Smalling`s exclusion from Gareth Southgate`s England World Cup squad.
Then there’s his tendency to pull at players shirts when in the penalty area defending set pieces. In the recent Chelsea game, he had hold of David Luiz`s shirt causing it to rip open when defending a corner. This behaviour does not go unnoticed by pundits and is regularly highlighted on television.
Since his return from injury, Smalling has been very assured against Aleksandar Mitrovic, Higuain and Liverpool`s front three in the 0-0 stalemate at Old Trafford. With the Englishman’s international and club sides experience, Smalling has to be favourite to partner Lindelof.Embed from Getty Images
News that Jones had recently signed a contract extension keeping him at the club until 2023 was met with much derision by United supporters. If he is not injuring his own players in training (just ask Wayne Rooney), injuring himself in such innocuous ways, diving into tackles or heading the ball two inches off the ground, Jones is capable of playing for Manchester United.
Built up by Sir Bobby Charlton as the next Duncan Edwards when he signed in 2011, Jones impressed the then United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson with his ability to play in defence and midfield. Touted as a future England captain, the £16.5m fee paid to Blackburn Rovers appeared money well spent on a player who was still under 20 years old. However, it is well documented how Jones’s United career has not lived up to the billing.
There always appears to be a tendency for Jones to try too hard when he returns to the first team. Over eagerness has caused him to pick up fresh injuries or poorly time tackles. You always feel he needs a long run in the side to allow him to settle into the role at the heart of the defence, but luck has never been on his side.
Jones is capable but gives the impression of a bull in a china shop, bombing through players like skittles instead of holding back and timing his game better. Supporters do enjoy a good crunching tackle, but Jones needs to realise there is a time for those tackles and a time to back off.
One suspects Jones is further down the pecking order in the list of central defenders due to his injury record. If he could only stay fit for longer then maybe people would finally see the player who shone in the colours of Blackburn when he burst onto the scene all those years ago.
When United signed the Ivorian Bailly from Villarreal in 2016, eyebrows were raised as few knew anything of the defender. During his first season he played 38 times, the most in a season since he arrived at the club. Sadly, injuries have disrupted his development at Old Trafford.
In his first season, Bailly showed how quick and strong he was which made him well suited to the premier league. He can defend against a pacey forward, covering the pitch at great speed and also has the physicality to take on a big strong forward like a Diego Costa. He manages to sniff out danger quickly, nipping in front of players comfortably taking the ball away.
Since his injuries, Bailly has been prone to rash challenges resulting in picking up plenty of cards. His timing has gone slightly wayward which has made him appear reckless.
However, he has an ability to bring the ball out of defence and a better pass on him compared to Smalling, Jones and Rojo combined.
If he can stay injury free and return to the player he was in the first season, Bailly should be challenging Smalling to be the one to partner Lindelof in the centre of United’s defence.
Do you agree with this analysis? Who would you prefer to see playing alongside Lindelof in United`s defence? Let us know your thoughts and observations.