Manchester United’s defensive woes increased yesterday as Louis van Gaal confirmed that injury has struck yet again.
In his pre-match press conference, Van Gaal told the assembled media Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans will not be available for Saturday’s game, a situation that was compounded as Tyler Blackett was already ruled out of the clash with West Ham.
With the extent of the injury list, Van Gaal has hinted he will look to the youth system to plug the gaps and the top three contenders are Tom Thorpe, Paddy McNair and Marnick Vermijl.
Tom Thorpe (pictured)
Tom Thorpe is the first name on the Under-21 team sheet which he is captaining for his third season. An elegant ball-playing centre back, he can also play in central midfield or at full back. He may not be as tall as others in that position but regular viewers of the Under-21s will confirm it doesn’t hold him back. He’s rarely beaten in the air, largely due to his reading of the game and positional sense.
Thorpe is calm and composed with a tackling technique that is so precise he hardly ever gives away free-kicks. He brings a stability to his defence with his consistent near faultless performances yet Thorpe doesn’t just lead by example. He’s very vocal on the pitch and gives encouragement or criticism when needed, proving that leadership is more than just pulling on an armband.
The 21-year-old is also one of the last men left standing from the victorious FA Youth Cup winning side of 2011. He captained his side, which included Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison, to victory while playing in every match.
The Manchester-born defender is also comfortable with the ball at his feet and is solid in his distribution whilst not being afraid to get stuck in with tackles. His form was crucial in the 2012/13 Barclays Under-21 Premier League title winning campaign, where for a significant part United played without a striker and so needed a tight defensive unit which produced a run of clean sheets. That saw him nominated for player of the season where he narrowly lost out to emerging talent Adnan Januzaj.
He had a mixed season last year with his performances for the Under-21s being at his usual excellent standard and his time on loan with Birmingham didn’t go as smoothly with his loan spells being cut short due to injury.
Paddy McNair joined Manchester United as a central attacking midfielder. He played as a midfielder for the youth teams before being dropped further back due to a central defensive injury crisis at Under-18 level. Since that time the vast majority of his appearances have been at central defence, although both Paul McGuinness and Warren Joyce have hinted he may get a chance to move back to midfield as his future position isn’t settled just yet.
A benefit of being a midfielder turned defender is that he is comfortable on the ball and has a large range of passing. He established himself as a regular in the Under-21 set up last season. His involvement was crucial in the team’s Barclay’s Under-21 Premier League campaign, not least because of his last-gasp goal against Reading to secure a top-four finish and progression to the knock-out stage of the competition.
He featured in the Under-19 UEFA Youth League last season under Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. The latter praised McNair along with his peers James Wilson, Ben Pearson and Joe Rothwell after having worked with them. Certainly McNair has improved in leaps and bounds as he grows ever more comfortable with his defensive role and has formed a solid partnership with Thorpe in the heart of the Under-21 defence.
Vermijl has been one of the most consistent players at Under-21 level. In his last full season at Under-21 level, his form saw him nominated alongside Adnan Januzaj and Tom Thorpe for the Denzil Haroun Reserve Player of the Year. He spent last season on loan at NEC Nijmegen where he earned plenty of praise for his performances. He is superb defensively but is no slouch going forward as he showed with a run of four goals in seven games for NEC.
The Belgian is most comfortable playing at right back although he is versatile enough to play at left back or in central defence, if necessary. He was involved for the first team already this season when he was played at centre back in the infamous Capital One Cup tie against MK Dons. Although the final result wasn’t what most would have hoped for, Vermijl’s overall performance was alright and Van Gaal may choose to go with a player who has already featured for him in central defence this season.
An automatic choice if fit, he is not a player whose performances grab the headlines but his general high-level of performance and versatility to play all across the back four saw Sir Alex Ferguson earmark him as a future fixture in the first-team squad. He is seldom found wanting by speedy wingers and on the rare occasions he is beaten, he boasts the pace to recover and win back possession.
Thorpe, Vermijl and McNair will potentially face competition from Darren Fletcher and Daley Blind for the position alongside Marcos Rojo in defence. If either Fletcher or Blind are used, then options available in an already stretched central midfield will be lessened, although their experience could prove an attractive factor for van Gaal. However, given that defensively United have looked shaky, adding players who are playing out of position into the mix may create more problems than it solves.
On the face of it the logical choice to play against West Ham is Thorpe.
United have been crying out for a decent defender and a leader – both qualities that Thorpe has displayed over the years as he has progressed up through the ranks for both United and England. While it would be his Premier League debut, Van Gaal has shown that he is not afraid of giving players their debut when they’ve earned their chance, and few could argue that Thorpe would be undeserving.
However, reports have emerged that it is 19-year-old McNair who is more likely to get the nod ahead of Thorpe which has surprised many of the regular viewers of Under-21 football. It must be noted that this shouldn’t be interpreted negatively against McNair’s abilities, just that most would consider Thorpe to be the better central defender and is at the right age for his chance.