Manchester United's Squad Review: Who stays or goes in defence?
Manchester United fell to Chelsea last Saturday. Eden Hazard's penalty kick proved sufficient to land the FA Cup. Phil Jones was the culprit. His loose tackle in the 22nd minute gifted the Blues their success. United supporters remained hopeful that their side would bounce back from behind, like on many other occasions this season. It wasn't to be, though.
Man United's season has been a roller-coaster, to say the least. At times, they have mesmerised in open play, getting their fans at the edge of seats. Other times, even during the same game, the Red Devils have been boring to watch.
With both critics and fans divided regarding the outlook, one conclusion stands true: United's squad requires a lot of changes this summer.
We have already scrutinised Man United's goalkeepers. Attention now turns to their defence.
United had the Premier League's second-best defensive record this season, conceding just one more goal than Manchester City. That stability, however, was largely due to David de Gea.
Jose Mourinho’s most used centre-back over the past ten months was Chris Smalling.
Yet, although Smalling featured in 29 league games this season, his defensive contribution is still lacking. The Englishman hasn't improved his tackling or positional play during eight years at Man United. It has led to fans calling for his head. Mourinho, though, wants his centre-backs to be physical and threaten on set-pieces. The former Fulham defender has delivered in that respect, claiming a career-high six goals. Most coming at crucial moments, too.
The fact he has played a big role in this campaign, despite Eric Bailly's readiness for action, underlines Mourinho's confidence in him. Even if a new centre-back joins United this summer, Smalling's future remains at Old Trafford.
At times, Phil Jones' performance is reminiscent of Nemanja Vidic. The two each possess a never-say-die attitude.
The Serb was superior in other areas, though. Poor tackling and a tendency to score own goals weigh against Jones. Both problems are remnants of the Alex Ferguson period. Despite spending over seven seasons at Man United, the England international is far off the legacy once dictated. After his costly mistake in the FA Cup final, fans continue to want him ousted.
Jones, however, was United's second most used centre-back this season. He seems set for at least a few more years at the Theatre of Dreams.
After missing the season's beginning due to injury, Marcos Rojo started five Premier League games and made one appearance in Europe. The Argentine has been culpable of making rash tackles, giving the opposition advantages in dangerous areas. Although his full-volume style is appreciated by Mourinho, he remains a wild element, quite hard to control at times.
Despite Rojo's obvious flaws, he looks to be on Man United's retained list.
Arguably United's best centre-back since the Rio Ferdinand-Vidic era, Eric Bailly started the campaign strongly. In the Red Devils' first seven league games, the Ivory Coast international helped pick up 19 points. Injury and illness, however, soon took their toll. He was then rarely seen.
Missing the last few matches while fully fit caused much confusion. Despite what the current rumours suggest, Bailly remains crucial in Mourinho's plans next season.
Acquired last season from Benfica, Victor Lindelof was predominantly signed to bring the ball out of defence. The Sweden international was expected to step further up the pitch, helping Man United overcrowd the opponents' midfield.
Although Lindelof's debut season got off to a shaky start, he has since gone from strength to strength. His most recent performances showed more composure and willingness to put his body on the line. Mourinho, however, picks his team strategically. It means the Swede won't feature in every game.
It will be interesting to see which defensive pairing Jose opts for in pre-season. Lindelof will likely be a strong contender.
A revelation at United this campaign, Ashley Young has bettered his performance to take control of the left-back position. Originally a right winger, the Englishman moulded his game in the way Mourinho demanded. He has not only pushed Luke Shaw and Daley Blind down the pecking order, he's earned England selection for the World Cup.
At 32, Young is a Man United old guard. He is still one of the side's very best when it comes to crossing, yet his delivery into the box isn't enough to propel the Red Devils' attack to the same level as Liverpool and Man City's.
United will look to sign a left-back this summer. Young perhaps has one more season at the club.
Man United's captain on occasion this season, Anthony Valencia's work-rate and determination cannot be questioned. The Ecuadorian is the top right-back at Old Trafford. However, the fact that a converted 33-year-old winger is the best option does not inject much confidence.
Valencia's place in the squad remains secure for at least another campaign. United, though, must sign a supporting right-back this summer.
Having performed well in his debut season at Man United, Matteo Darmian's reputation has since gone downhill. The Italy International started only four league games this campaign.
Used generally as a wing-back, Darmian is better in the final third than his own half. His defensive positioning has often been criticised over the past ten months. In some cases, the 28-year-old ventured too high up the pitch, leaving gaps for the opposition to attack. It begs the question: how can an Italian defender fail so miserably in defence?
Darmian is likely to leave United in the coming months. Juventus is the most probable destination.
Arriving at Old Trafford as the world's third-most expensive defender in history, Luke Shaw's move from Southampton is yet to pay off. The Englishman's game intelligence and positioning aren't at the required level. Fitness issues also remain a worry.
Shaw is a talent who may never fully mature. After offering him multiple opportunities to shine, Mourinho may get rid this summer.
Like Rojo and Darmian, Daley Blind was a Louis van Gaal acquisition. The Netherlands full-back has been used as a midfielder and left back this season, totalling seven appearances. His performance has not proven why Man United should retain him. Gaps persist in his defensive contribution, while his support play also leaves a lot to be desired.
Blind is in United's deadwood batch. He is most likely on his way out.
Manchester United must sign at least three defensive players in this transfer window. The Red Devils need a central defender, as well as right and left backs. They require full-backs who will fly down the wings, firing crosses into Romelu Lukaku, then track back to defend their space.