The ideal centre back Manchester United can't have
David de Gea offered another goalkeeping masterclass to preserve Manchester United's 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. Afterwards, most fans celebrated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's record for six consecutive wins as new United boss and their keeper's outstanding performance. Some weren't in the mood for revelry, however. Again, they bemoaned their defence, calling for a major signing in the January window.
De Gea stopped 11 shots in a similar fashion to his 14-save performance against Arsenal last season. At the other end, Hugo Lloris stopped eight, many as critical as his opposite number's. Had the Frenchman not collected a header, tipped a long volley over the bar and dove to his right to keep out a seeing-eye volley, the score might have been as lopsided as the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford earlier in the season and those were just Paul Pogba's chances. Despite Lloris' worthy performance, no one is suggesting Spurs overhaul their rearguard.
In fact, Toby Aldeweireld tops the list of potential signings for most United fans. At 29 and coming off an outstanding World Cup with Belgium, the right-side centre-half is considered world class and, I suppose, deservedly so. Much has been made of his reluctance to sign a new contract with Tottenham, the speculation being he believes his best chance to win a trophy lies elsewhere. United fans naturally think their club can offer what he desires despite looking up in the table at Spurs for the past few years.
There is also the difficulty involved in prying such a player away from a club that believes it's still in the title race, not to mention contention for the Champions League. But I'm not disparaging United supporters' rose-tinted perspective on signing Aldeweireld. I'm here to suggest they should be pursuing a more difficult target, his partner for club and country, Jan Vertonghen.
To be clear, acquiring either Belgian in January is impossible. Even if one or the other could be had, expecting him to offer an immediate impact on arrival is unrealistic. When Virgil van Dijk signed with Liverpool in January, he thrilled the Kop with a game-winning header in his debut, the Merseyside Derby no less. Then he struggled to provide the shut-down defending for which he was signed in his first half-season with the club. He needed the summer to gel with his new teammates. United can't expect better from Vertonghen or Aldeweireld. They must trust the squad they have to continue producing results under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
An interesting question then arises in the summer. If United hire Mauricio Pochettino, will Aldeweireld follow? Less vocal than Danny Rose, it's unclear whether his dissatisfaction is directed towards the manager or Spurs' transfer policy. Vertonghen's silence conceals his feelings on the matter.
Regardless, United need a defender. I believe Vertonghen is the best choice available among players [in any competition] whose contract expires in 2020 or sooner. His age rules him out for many. He turns 32 in April and his ability can only decline. I'm not seeking a long-term solution, however. United doesn't need one.
They need what Aldeweireld and Kalidou Koulibaly, for all their ability and years of service remaining, cannot provide. In a word, leadership. For all his strength, agility, and tactical nous, Van Dijk's leadership is what makes Liverpool's defence so resilient this season. While not Spurs captain, Vertonghen is the one who clearly leads the Tottenham rearguard, not Aldeweireld. Jan is the Butch to Toby's Sundance, the Batman to his Robin, the Chris Smalling to his Phil Jones.
Vertonghen is clearly superior both in talent and leadership to Chris Smalling. You could say the same for Aldeweireld over Jones, although the margin is far less. Both can defend, carry the ball forward and provide an aerial option in the final third from dead ball situations. The primary differences between the two are that Aldeweireld doesn't share Jones' penchant for own goals and lacks the facial muscles to make those hilarious faces.
Quantifying a defender's ability is more difficult than with a forward. Goals and assists matter in any comparison between strikers but different systems demand different qualities from defenders. Does your manager want you to play out from the back? Does he man-mark in set-pieces or assign zonal coverage? Happily, Vertonghen has the talent and size [6' 2", 193 lbs] to operate in most schemes.
Background photo: Alexander Kachkaev, CC BY 3.0
When Ed Woodward declined to fulfill Jose Mourinho's wish for a centre-half in the summer window, he claimed there were none as good as United's to be had. He was wrong. Koulibaly and Aldeweireld are better than Smalling and Jones. The club doesn't need a slightly better defender if he can't take charge, however. They need a leader. Jan Vertonghen fits the bill.
He'll be 32 to start the 2019/20 campaign. He's a left-side defender, which puts him in Victor Lindelof's way. The 24-year-old has the time to benefit from Vertonghen's tutelage in the same fashion Gary Cahill learned from John Terry at Chelsea. The Belgian only needs to give United two years before the Swede should be ready to step into his shoes.
United have looked to veterans for short-term help in the past. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was most recent but Henrik Larsson, Teddy Sheringham and Laurent Blanc also put in a shift. Vertonghen won't be available in this window, but he might over the summer. Whether Ole Gunnar remains the manager, Mauricio Pochettino arrives or someone else comes through the door, the Spurs man should be United's primary summer target and, given Daniel Levy's reputation, one they should begin working on now.