Louis Van Gaal‘s decision to use three central defenders as United’s back line in the pre-season matches so far has sparked some debate. Following the departures of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, there are only three central defenders among the first team squad. This has seen Van Gaal call upon the services of Darren Fletcher at the heart of defence as well as use Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett.
However, while the rotation of personnel has been necessary, it does beg the question why more central defenders were not brought on the tour, in particular why was Tom Thorpe left at home?
It’s an odd situation. We’re shifting players who are better in other positions into central defence and yet we’re overlooking a natural centre-back who has earned a chance.
Thorpe is one of last men left standing from the victorious Youth Cup side of 2011 . He captained his side to victory, played in every match and has since gone on to captain the Under-21s. He may not be as tall as others in that position but regular viewers of the Under-21s will confirm that it doesn’t hold him back. He’s rarely beaten in the air, largely due to his reading of the game and positional sense. Capable of playing in midfield as well, he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and is solid in his distribution.
He’s 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. Comparisons have been made between Thorpe and United’s captain of the 1970/80s Martin Buchan due to his shorter stature, on-field intelligence, natural leadership skills and communication.
Going about his job in a quiet, efficient manner, Thorpe isn’t a player who grabs the headlines but United’s successes at youth level may not have come to pass without the solid defensive foundation that Thorpe provides. 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.
One then has to wonder why Thorpe, 21, had to wait until the latter part of last season to get his first loan move. Admittedly it ended in disaster with him getting an injury just 11 minutes into his first professional game but such was Lee Clark’s confidence in him that he immediately took him back on loan when he recovered.
Thorpe was offered a new contract by United this summer but questions have to be asked about his future at the club, especially when he has been left out of pre-season while his position doesn’t have full cover within the squad brought on tour.
Meanwhile, Thorpe just gets on with things, captaining the reserves pre-season sides with yet more consistent, fantastic performances, hoping that at some point his hard work will stop going unnoticed.