Johannesburg - With a defence that is shakier than a rope suspension bridge, guilty of shipping in 34 goals in 26 English Premier League matches, it is not rocket science concluding that fourth-placed Manchester United are in dire need of a defensive shake-up.
The Red Devils’ rearguard, marshalled by captain Harry Maguire, has leaked in the most goals of any of the sides currently occupying the top five positions in the English top flight, and even the arrival of World Cup-winning French international defender Raphael Varane has not proved enough of a tonic for the record 20-time English champions’ defensive woes.
Maguire has been at the centre of much of the criticism for numerous of United’s defensive horror shows this season, and rightly so.
The 41-time capped England international defender’s apparent lack of defensive nous has made for an unenviable reel of comical defensive errors on YouTube and the compilation seems to grow by the week.
The four-time Uefa Champions League-winning Varane arrived amidst fanfare at Old Trafford in September 2021, but his debut season at the Theatre of Dreams has been marred by injuries that have seen him turn out only 15 times in the Premier League.
Given Maguire’s nightmarish displays against Burnley and Southampton in the Premier League recently, Varane’s return from injury has given United temporary relief.
Maguire is an enigma. Bought for a world record £80 million, for a defender, from Leicester City a little over two years ago following a largely impressive two-year spell, coupled with an top showing for England at the 2018 World Cup, he was seen as United’s answer to Liverpool’s signing of the Dutch defensive mainstay Virgil van Dijk.
Whereas Liverpool’s £75 million colossus, the previous most expensive defender before Maguire, has gone on to collect Champions League, Uefa Super Cup, Fifa Club World Cup and Premier League winners’ medals at Anfield, the only thing more colossal about Maguire than Van Dijk remains his price tag.
There has been no better evidence of Maguire’s shortcomings as a centreback than the horror show he put on for Burnley’s equaliser some 12 days ago. He basically ushered The Clarets’ Jay Rodriguez, comically fearing to put in a tackle, to net the equaliser in a match that ended 1-1.
Despite heading the Red Devils into a 34th minute lead at Leeds United last weekend, his defensive flaws were once more exposed as he casually watched a Daniel James cross run across the face of David De Gea’s goal before being tucked in by Leeds’ Brazilian sensation Raphina to make it 2-2. Ralf Rangnick’s men eventually won 4-2 at Elland Road.
What makes Maguire even more of an enigmatic figure is how different he often looks for England, leaving many fans questioning what is wrong with United that makes him perform horribly.
He was in a different class for the Three Lions at the European Championships in July 2021 and that begs the question about United’s approach to investing in the right players.
Maguire was even named in the team of the tournament at the Euros. Is the lack of a solid, and accomplished, defensive midfielder at United not a factor in this?
With England he has Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips and West Ham’s Declan Rice, both rumoured transfer targets of the Old Trafford dwellers, forming a block in front of him and John Stones, which makes their job easier as they can focus solely on marking the forwards.
Meanwhile at United, because of their weak midfield, central defenders like Maguire and Victor Lindelof are often left exposed because opponents have acres of space to bring the ball forward.
If United had a defensive midfielder they would most likely not have conceded that type of goal against Burnley, because in that instance they had their two centrebacks, Maguire and Varane, sucked in trying to defend from midfield positions, and once they failed in that endeavour they were facing their own goal and it was curtains from thereon.
Given this defensive crisis, which has seen them dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship club Middlesbrough and which is threatening their top four aspirations and potentially impacting their Champions League campaign, who do United turn to for defensive salvation?
One answer to that question lies in Italy. In Lombardy, United will find a Slovak man mountain aptly named Milan, as rock solid a defensive option as Van Dijk.
Internazionale’s robust Milan Skriniar is a 27-year-old battering ram of a centreback that United should be clamouring to sign.
In recent times it was United that pioneered the signing of robust defensive monsters from Eastern Europe, when they nabbed the Serbian international Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow in January 2006.
In the summer of 2008 Chelsea nabbed Vidic’s compatriot Branislav Ivanovic from Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow, while six months earlier Liverpool forked out £6.5 million to Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg to recruit Martin Skrtel, Skriniar’s compatriot and the man whose successor he is seen as.
On this day in 2006, Nemanja Vidic officially joined Manchester United for £7m. 🔴— United Zone (@ManUnitedZone_) January 5, 2021
The rest is history. 🏆pic.twitter.com/84JwwPOZyS
Skriniar ticks all the boxes compulsory in a contemporary, hybrid defender and embodies a take no prisoners attitude in executing his duties - much like Vidic and the Eastern European defensive luminaries mentioned above.
Standing at 1.88m he is imperious aerially, but do not be fooled by his large frame as Skriniar is incredibly rapid on the ground. When strikers bear down on his goal the Slovak times his challenges so well he often wins the ball without committing unnecessary fouls.
Skriniar has spent the last seven seasons plying his trade in world football’s famed school of defending, Italy’s Serie A, with five of those coming in the colours of the Nerazzurri following two seasons with Sampdoria.
Having played a pivotal role in Inter’s Scudetto win last season, the first since they won the Serie A as part of the 2009/2010 treble under Jose Mourinho, Skriniar has clearly gone beyond master’s degree level in defending and now boasts a doctorate in the art of protecting one’s goal.