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What is Manchester United's best centre-back pairing?

Wednesday 19th September 2018

Manchester United has endured a rough patch at the beginning of the season. The major issue lies in defence. It's probably the first time a Jose Mourinho team has struggled so much at the back. Last campaign, full-backs were the biggest concern. Luke Shaw has since taken over Ashley Young and proven a massive upgrade down the left-hand side. On the opposite flank, Antonio Valencia looks sharper, with Diego Dalot waiting in the wings. However, centrally it's shambolic. Against both Brighton & Hove Albion and Tottenham Hotspur, United's central defenders were exposed. The gaffer tried all four available possibilities but neither worked.       

Perhaps, then, Ed Woodward should have brought in either Toby Alderweireld or Harry Maguire. Now forced to wait until at least January, Mourinho must make do with what's currently on offer.   

Man United possess Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly as centre-back options. Marcos Rojo is injured, again. Youngster Axel Tuanzebe is on loan at Aston Villa. Daley Blind, meanwhile, was sold to Ajax in the summer. The Dutchman could've done a better job than the Red Devils' present crop. His awareness and distribution were both top draw. The decision to sell him instead of Smalling or Jones is mind-boggling.       

At the season's start, I was among those who believed Lindelof and Bailly could form a long-lasting partnership at Old Trafford. That thought is seeming way off the mark. 

Lindelof and Bailly performed poorly at the Amex. Yet, the pair remain young, talented defenders. They need a run of games to prosper. Unfortunately for them, Mourinho can't afford to give that.   

Jones and Smalling were brought in. It begged the question: what do they offer as a pairing? Each has coasted at Man United for over seven years. They are both better when paired with someone else. Jones had two great runs next to Rojo and Bailly. Smalling improved a lot playing alongside ballplayers in Blind and Lindelof. The English duo together is not the answer. In fact, it's a recipe for disaster.     

Lindelof and Smalling have proven the most effective partnership so far this season, although Bailly can line up with either to provide the same result. Going forward, Mourinho should rotate these three centre-backs. Smalling is the most trusted, Bailly the most talented and Lindelof the most gifted on the ball.   

Smalling's physicality has helped United against physical strikers such as Troy Deeney. But Mourinho shouldn't rely on him to contain frontmen who have flair - Sergio Aguero for example. The England international is good in the air but not so good with ball at feet. He's far too clumsy.    

Using the direct approach, Marouane Fellaini is doing utmost, as always, to help in defence. The 6'4'' midfielder has been mammoth, literally, in the last two matches. He shielded his centre-halves, made numerous tackles and won back possession.    

Granted, Fellaini isn't the ideal solution. He has looked out of place, at times, when tackling and marking. All things considered, though, his recent form is nothing less than outstanding. The key for Mourinho is not to overuse the Belgian.  

That is where Bailly comes in. Without a doubt, he is United's top defender. The Ivorian was frozen out during last season's second half, but this campaign should be different. After showing glimpses of his quality, it is Mourinho's task to ensure he produces best.     

Now onward, Man United must deploy two from Lindelof, Smalling and Bailly, depending on the opposition. Fellaini's strength can be brought in for the big away games.   

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Vedansh Nathani

Manchester United fan from India. Follows almost all sports - football and pro-wrestling in particular. Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are some of his favourites.

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