The retirement of Edwin Van Der Sar meant a new keeper was a must, and the apparent retirement of Paul Scholes meant a new central midfielder was probably going to be drafted in.
Whilst we got our new keeper in David De Gea, we didn’t get our new central midfielder. It was said that Paul Pogba would be gently introduced into the team whilst Tom Cleverley was made a first team player and in January Paul Scholes made a shock return.
This summer Scholes may or may not stay on, and if rumours are to be believed Pogba may be on his way to Juventus so it is still an area that needs attention, but that isn’t the only one.
This season we have seen a multitude of players operate at right back. After Gary Neville retired midway through last season it was thought that Brazilian Rafael would assume his throne as chief right back. He shared the position with Antonio Valencia and his brother Fabio (who incidentally pipped him to a starting place in the Champions League final against Barcelona) but it was thought a new season would see him cement his place.
Not quite, disaster struck when he dislocated his shoulder prior to our opening game with West Brom and he was ruled out until the turn of the year. In that time the position was shared between his brother Fabio, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and to a lesser extent Antonio Valencia.
When Rafael returned and did begin playing games though he impressed, and his partnership with Valencia down the right was one to write home about. The two worked well together and were the scourge of a number of left backs. There were occasional blips (he suffered the indignation of being subbed on and then subbed off against Arsenal, as well as switching off against Athletic Bilbao for their 3rd goal at Old Trafford) but for the large part he was good.
Sir Alex praised his maturity saying:
“He’s doing well. He was always a rash, young boy and his enthusiasm was overwhelming at times but he’s settled down quite well and is quite calm in his game now. So, by doing that, he’s brought his game to a really good pitch at the moment.
“He’s playing really well and combined well with Valencia. There’s a good understanding there.”
It looked like he was continuing his development and he would make the position his as it had been expected at the start of the season but against Everton, as United let 2 leads slip and drew 4-4, he (like a number of players) failed to impress. Whilst the whole backline under performed Rafael did himself little favours with his performance, and he was subsequently dropped for the game against City and was used as a late sub in Sunday’s game with Swansea.
This was meant to be Rafael’s breakout season but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Whilst he made errors in the time he did play, I think it is the injuries that give rise to most of our concerns. Rafael is becoming more and more experienced and by the time the next campaign starts he will be 22. He has shown enough positives this season for us to be confident that the right back position is one he can hold down for years to come, but will injuries curtail his development?
Whilst both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones can play there, neither are actual right backs (Smalling will likely be a class center back whilst it is up in the air where Jones will end up) thus leaving the position to Rafael to make his own. But his worrying injury record means that rumours of a move for Crystal Palace’s Nathaniel Clyne may well be true.
Clyne may not have the experience or the ability of Rafael but if he will offer genuine competition for the position as well as being a player that, if Rafael can’t stay injury free, has the potential to become our 1st choice right back.
Despite having been involved in the first team for 4 years, Rafael is still young and learning. He is still prone to the odd mistake which is no massive surprise considering his age, but the question we must now ask ourselves is are we willing to stick with him despite these mistakes? We have not had a nailed down rightback since the injury free days of Gary Neville and as it goes without saying a settled back four is the basis on which teams are built.
The potential inclusion of Clyne to the picture will mean that we have 4 players that can play in the position and whilst this may serve to further muddy the waters, it is likely that it will be just Rafael and Clyne battling for the spot.
You would presume that the position is Rafael’s and Clyne is being brought in as backup but regardless of how the situation plays out, I am not alone in thinking that the player selected needs to hold that position and play there regularly as long as injury permits.