If you had told Jonny Evans last season, when he was struggling with injury and in a relegation scrap with Leicester, that by December he would have played 180 minutes in a week, in a do-or-die Champions League tie versus Bayern Munich and kept a clean sheet at Anfield, he would have scarcely believed you.
Nonetheless, this is exactly what has happened. While his centre-back partner, Raphael Varane will deservedly take most of the plaudits, the Ulsterman was also a key component of keeping at bay a prolific Liverpool attack yesterday.
Whilst praising the former Real Madrid defender’s display, the manager, Erik ten Hag, was quick to lavish praise on his free agent signing by stating, he (Varane) did very well in the partnership with Jonny Evans, both lead from the back. I can mention all players because, it was really a team, very disciplined”.
Ten Hag on Varane's exemplary display: "Absolutely, but we know what he is capable of. He had many such performances. He did very well in the partnership with Jonny Evans, both lead from the back. I can mention all players because, it was really a team, very disciplined." #MUFC
— Laurie Whitwell (@lauriewhitwell) December 17, 2023
There was much raising of eyebrows when United brought back Jonny Evans this summer window as defensive cover and the former Premier League winner was written off by many, especially after a tough debut from the bench away to Arsenal.
However, a decimated back line and in particular, a long term injury to Lisandro Martinez, has seen Jonny Evans play much more than was intended. Many saw the Northern Irishman’s role to be that of fifth or sixth choice centre back, who would likely only start versus lower league teams in the cup.
This has not been the case though as Evans has rolled back the years putting in some very fine displays at times, such as a monstrous effort versus Burnley, where he was resolute defensively, playing a magnificent pass to assist Bruno Fernandes and having a goal unluckily chalked off.
Although, Evans has already been called up to play against much tougher opposition. Due to various circumstances, he has been asked to play with a revolving door of different partners and to represent the club in the most challenging of games versus Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Liverpool.
Yesterday at Anfield the defender received a score of 7.2 from Sofascore and made five clearances with two blocked shots. The man from Belfast’s solidity was shown in that he was only dribbled past once by Liverpool’s array of tricky attackers and won three out of four of his ground duels. The centre back even completed 77% of his passes in a match where the whole team was wasteful with possession.
The game at Anfield was his 12th of the season and crucially, he has played nine games in the Premier League. Most fans would have been surprised if he had played nine games all season, never mind before Christmas.
So should Evans be offered a new deal?
Logically, things will get harder for the academy product as the season wears on and his biggest obstacle to a place in the team, Lisandro Martinez, will likely play a lot as he inches towards full fitness.
Furthermore, due to the club’s catastrophic Champions League performances and weak Carabao Cup defence, the Mancunian side will likely only play once a week for the majority of the season in the Premier League and the odd FA Cup game, assuming they make it past Wigan.
His gametime could also be complicated due to Varane’s positive impact on Sunday. The Frenchman has been well down the pecking order for the Dutch coach, but such a performance last night may have changed Ten Hag’s mind.
Another problem for an Evans’ return next season is the team is very likely to sign a defender or two in the winter or summer windows. The side from Old Trafford have been linked to a plethora of talents such as Marc Guehi, Jean-Clair Todibo and Goncalo Inacio. All much younger than the 35 year old centre back.
So, whilst the Northern Ireland international has probably convinced most fans that he has a role to play to the end of the season, due to his ability to clearly compete with Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane for minutes, not many would probably offer him a new deal.
However, the club would be wise to do so, under certain circumstances. Evans has played well over 600 professional games when factoring in his Northern Ireland caps. He has immense experience and clearly loves the club growing up a fan, coming through the academy and winning multiple trophies with the side.
If the player can maintain his form, stay largely injury free and accepts a backup role of fifth or sixth choice option (as initially intended this year), offering a new deal is a no-brainer. If not being called upon every week, his age should not rule him out – 40 year old Pepe still playing in the Champions League for Porto is testament to the old adage that age is just a number.
Evans is clearly valued by the coaching staff and also the dressing room, so he can provide invaluable experience in a squad that can lack this crucial aspect. This could be seen when late in the second half, the Ulsterman could be seen passing on advice to young Kobbie Mainoo. The defender could even get involved in some way through coaching or working with the academy.
It is a low risk, high reward opportunity the club should not miss out on.