If Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra and Rafael were all injured by the end of the first week last season, United would have been plummeted into a crisis that would see our defensive reserves stretched to their upper limits (Carrick as CB again anyone?). This year, however, it is a completely different kettle of fish and what a fantastic position to be in. Although Vidic being out is a rarity, we all know that as hard as he tries, Ferdinand is likely to miss anywhere between 1-3 months of every season he continues to play at United whether it is his back or his hamstring, the injuries return with striking regularity. As for Rafael, I am definitely concerned; an injury blighted the second half of last season after he performed so well up until then and after he dislocated his shoulder and ruled himself out for 10 weeks, United looked stretched as far as defensive replacements went. The sales of veterans Wes Brown and John O’Shea caused an uproar amongst some fans who saw no gain in letting them go but times are changing – this time the injuries are more an opportunity for others than a crisis for the team.
Chris Smalling came into United last summer and 12 months later, we were thrilled with the progress he made. Having made 23 appearances in his debut season, Smalling kept going from strength to strength and looked like a seasoned veteran whenever he stepped in to partner Vidic or Ferdinand. He made his Champions League bow against Rangers and helped United to keep a clean sheet in a tight 0-0 draw and didn’t for one second seem overawed by the situation he was in; considering he has gone from non-league anonymity to the biggest football club in a period of 2 years, he has handled it with immense professionalism. After seeing Smalling play so excellently as right-back against West Brom last weekend, considering the injury to Rafael, we may see Smalling deployed there more often than not after Vidic shakes off his injury. He has been rewarded for his impressive growth by being given a five-year deal that sees him become tied to the club until 2016. In previous times, whenever Jonny Evans or John O’Shea stood in as emergency centre-backs, I found myself nervous and dreaded the moment the ball came near our box. On the contrary, Smalling instils a massive amount of belief in me when he plays and what better way to partner such a fantastic young defensive prospect than bringing in his U21 International team-mate.
Phil Jones cost a hefty £16 million when United bought him from Blackburn this year and, at the time, United fans were left scratching their heads. £16 million on a centre-back when we were desperately seeking a central midfielder? However, it takes a braver man than me to question SAF and once again, his move is vindicated almost immediately. When Jones came on as a second half substitute in both the Community Shield and the West Bromwich Albion game, he looked primed and ready; a versatile player who can play as a central defender or a defensive midfielder, Jones has been tipped by many as the future England captain and if you have watched any of his performances over the past 6 months, it is not hard to see why. The most exciting part with Jones is that he and Smalling have already played very well together for the England U21’s this summer and their knowledge of each other’s games looked sharp, never leaving the defence exposed whilst one or the other galloped forward. Jones is looking forward to the game against Spurs this Monday and so am I, thanks to the prospect of Jones and Smalling playing alongside each other.
Without getting ahead of myself, I think this batch of defenders we have is the best selection we have had in many, many years. To have (hypothetically) Jones, Smalling, Fabio and Evans all in the second team is a testament to the strength in depth that SAF has created. The sales of Brown and O’Shea were seen as causes for concern but any dissident voices will find it hard to speak up after seeing just what Jones can bring to the team. I fully expect that this season United will win at least one if not both of the domestic cups and I think Smalling and Jones will be a significant reason we do succeed in them. A polished performance against Spurs on Monday and SAF might have to re-consider his defensive starting line-up because Jones and Smalling are both capable of replacing Ferdinand if his injuries keep striking him down because as we all know, nobody is safe from the cut with SAF and we wouldn’t have it any other way.