With Patrice Evra set to become the latest senior player to depart Old Trafford, the incoming coach enters a dressing room full of individuals low on experience and confidence
By Duncan Castles
The list of departed leaders is extraordinary; unprecedented in a single Premier League summer. Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic. All first-team captains, none to be seen in a Manchester United shirt again.
Their exits took different forms. Giggs elected to retire when persuaded to remain at Old Trafford as one of Louis van Gaal’s assistants. His contract running down, Vidic chose to move to Serie A before United had the opportunity to show him the door. After 12 seasons in red, Ferdinand was informed that his services were no longer required.
Losing the third part of what was until recently United’s strongest defence was a more complicated process. Whatever you read last season about Patrice Evra being surplus to requirements for the coming campaign was misinformed.
Evra, arguably the most complete left-back in the history of the Premier League, winner of five English titles and every other trophy available in his eight and half years at Old Trafford, triggered a one-year contract option with the number of his appearances during that final campaign. He finished it having started six more league games than the club’s next most-used outfielder, Wayne Rooney.
It was May before Evra elected to take up the unilateral option on a deal worth well over £6 million a year; persuaded by Van Gaal’s direct request that he remain as the dressing room leader of a squad that was undergoing radical surgery. Then, while Evra was helping to lead France at the World Cup, came an approach from Juventus.
The Italian champions could offer Champions League football, a move back to Italy that appealed to Evra’s family, and a second year of contract on the same lucrative terms. United responded by proposing another new deal to the 33-year-old, also for two seasons, but Evra opted for Juve.
Citing the recent £30m acquisition of Luke Shaw, some consider Evra’s exit both inevitable and unimportant. The problem is that simply spending more on a full-back than any football club has ever done, does not make that individual as complete as the one he must now replace.
Shaw is 19 years old, has played one competitive international and a little over a season and a half of Premier League football. He has the potential to develop into one of Europe’s elite defenders, yet his transfer fee is primarily a reflection of his nationality and United’s desperation in the current transfer market.
While Van Gaal approved Shaw’s purchase, it was instigated long before the Dutchman’s appointment as manager. The inflated fee, partly caused by the struggle to convince Southampton to sell to United rather than elsewhere in the Premier League, was down to executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who has rapidly established a formidable reputation of over-paying for players.
Why did Van Gaal ask Evra to remain? Because he recognised not just a footballer of considerable athletic and technical talent, but an individual fundamental to leading a defence and a team. And those are now in short supply for what will be a pivotal season at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal is not simply expected to hurdle the 15-point gap between last season’s seventh-place finish and qualification for Champions League football, he has been charged with deleting the 22-point deficit on champions Manchester City. Assuming he does not buy a new captain, his options as a leader are limited.
Rooney would love the role and the idea that another new manager considers him the most important player at the club. Yet few who know Van Gaal expect the relationship to run smoothly with a forward who so infuriated Sir Alex Ferguson, with his behaviour being such that the Scot wanted him sold. Van Gaal has a long history of intolerance towards those who place themselves above the team, that does not bode well for Rooney unless some fundamental changes are made.
The more obvious choice is a man who let his displeasure at Rooney’s renewed importance under David Moyes be known last year. When fit and focused, Robin van Persie has proven he can be beyond equal in the Premier League. He is Van Gaal’s captain for the Netherlands with their national-team partnership delivering a glut of Van Persie goals (17 in 23 internationals together) plus a run to a World Cup semi-final.
The word is that Van Persie’s personal recommendation helped ease Van Gaal’s path to Old Trafford. The work laid out for them now is more intimidating than it might first appear. As United’s season under Moyes descended into self-destruction, some sought to blame the players and many called for sweeping change.
Woodward intends that scores of millions more be spent in pursuit of the latter. The club is about to find out if such atypical largesse can be sufficient to compensate for the loss of so many long-term leaders.