After an extremely promising start to the season, United’s youngsters were on fire and destroying any opposition put in their path regardless of the amount of injuries that the squad was burdened with. Injuries to key players such as Antonio Valencia, Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher meant that the likes of Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were given a chance to impress and fortunately for us; they showed us all just why Sir Alex had placed so much promise in their abilities and temperament. The destruction of the likes of Spurs, Arsenal and City in the Charity Shield gave an indication as to what was to be expected in the forthcoming season; a stroll to the title, or so we thought.
City had also started the season brightly and were scoring goals for fun albeit against less prestigious opposition than those that United had thashed, however they were obviously ready to take the title challenge to United. Having spent much more than United had in the summer, and with an already star studded squad compiled of nearly 500 million pounds worth of spending, it was obvious that the Reds had their work cut out.
A few weeks down the line and the glistering form United start the season off in had quickly disappeared as our injury list grew by the week and the squad was stripped to its bare bones. Struggling in Europe with only two less than impressive wins against the unknown Otelul Galati of Romania, United had found themselves in a desperate situation against FC Basel at St. Jakob-Park where they needed a draw or a win to progress to the next round of the Champions League. Sir Alex’s side found themselves trailing after only 9 minutes against the Swiss side and continued to struggle in front of goal. Moments before half time, United captain and idol Nemanja Vidic appeared to twist his knee and rupture his ligaments which looked set to have him side-lined for the rest of the season. 45 minutes later and United had found themselves humiliated in front of a much weaker FC Basel who would go on into the Champions League knock out draw whereas the reds of Manchester were left in third place, Europa League territory.
I vaguely recall the reactions of many after the game. Journalists, fans and pundits were rash in their judgement and quick to label this current United side the worst ever in United’s Premier League era. Out of Europe’s most prestigious tournament and trailing City in the league after being battered by their blue Manchester rivals at Old Trafford thanks to a catastrophic performance by the defence and an idiotic sending off for young Jonny Evans, not much was expected this season. It was claimed that with Vidic out, the only chance of silverware for United was to try and win one of the domestic cup competitions and/or the Europa League, with us minimalizing damage in the league by insuring we do not finish too far off away from expected winners Manchester City.
A few months later and Manchester United find themselves within touching distance of their 20th league title thanks to a collective effort by the squad and the extraordinary Sir Alex Ferguson. One crucial key to the extraordinary turnaround at Old Trafford which has seen United overturn City’s large lead at the top of the table has been the increasingly impressive Jonny Evans.
Before I start singing my praises on Jonny Evans and go on to explain why I think he is Manchester United’s player of the season, I want to take a moment to talk about the influence of Rio Ferdinand. A lot was made regarding Rio’s dip in form at the start of the season, with Sir Alex even publically criticising his earlier season performances.
“Rio has lost that electric yard of pace that he had a few years ago and so he needs to rearrange his game a little bit. He is almost 33 and when you arrive in your 30s you have to tailor your game in a different way” Sir Alex on Rio Ferdinand after United’s humiliating 1-6 defeat to their inner-city rivals.
With Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, as well as Vidic before he picked his injury, all ready to play at centre back, Sir Alex claimed that Rio was no longer a confirmed starter in the United side. After Vidic was side-lined for the season and both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones injured or deployed in various other positions, it was left to Evans and Ferdinand to carry the United side through thick and thin throughout the course of the season.
It is here that I will take a moment to credit how vital a player Rio has been for United throughout the last few months. Having overcome his niggling back injury which had plagued him for the past few years, Rio took on the responsibility of becoming the main defensive leader in the team. His calming presence and bags of experience have undoubtedly played a massive part in how well Evans, and the defence in general, has been able to cope without Vidic.
After Evans’ sending off against City, and his continuous below par performances throughout the season before, a lot had been made of young Jonny Evans with many even calling for him to be sold in the summer claiming that he’s not good enough to make the grade at United. It was understandable for many people to question whether the relatively inexperienced centre back had it in him to fill the massive shoes left by Nemanja after his knee injury but credit to the Northern Ireland international who managed to keep his cool, take a long hard look in the mirror and ask himself whether he was prepared to step up his game to finally make the grade Old Trafford.
“Sometimes you do think you are immune from it (bad form) and maybe I took my eye off the ball a little bit. Maybe I relaxed a bit too much and thought it was going to come as easily as the previous two seasons. All of a sudden it hits you. You just have to regroup and have a word with yourself.”
Fortunately for us, he has put even his most ruthless doubters to shame after a string of phenomenal performances this season. Having start 23 games out of his 24 appearances, Evans has showcased his talent against the strongest oppositions in the league and has come out winner on most instances. It is clear that Sir Alex now trust Evans to start in the big games, regardless of who he will be facing. Only De Gea, Patrice Evra and Wayne Rooney have played more Premier League minutes this season for United than Evans. Since the City hammering, United are still yet to lose in the league when the 23 year old has featured.
A lot has changed in terms of playing style and physique with Evans. The boy looks stronger, much more confident in the air, on the ball and he seems to have developed a healthy understanding with Rio at the back thanks to a lengthy developed partnership between the two which has resulted in him becoming much less prone to poor positioning and errors during the game.
In terms of heading, very few players are able to easily beat Jonny in the air nowadays. Throughout the course of this season, Evans has averaged an aerial success rate of 70% which is nearly twice what it was during his last season. A notable example of Evans’ dominance in the air this season was against the 6’3’’ Russian giant Pogrebnyak as Evans won all 5 of his aerial challenges with the Fulham striker.
As mentioned earlier, his reading of the game has also improved dramatically with him making countless interceptions and important tackles throughout matches. Where he might have put in a rash challenge or a foot in careless and given away a cheap foul only a few months back, and been booked as a result, he is now much more disciplined when dealing with opposition players running at him with the ball. He has also improved his ability to back off strikers and holding up play to let his teammates regroup, and then put in a tackle at the right time to win the ball back cleanly. Evans has been known to make costly errors in the past but he also seems to have erased that aspect from his play with his improved positioning on the field. His reading of the game has obviously been positively affected by Rio and he is now hardly in a situation where he has to put in a last ditch challenge. Thanks to his improved reading of the game, these scenarios have become something of a rarity.
Evans’ off the ball movement is also a sight to behold and is something which really makes him stand out as a footballer. What Evans does excellently is always show for the ball when he doesn’t have the ball at his feet. This then allows his teammates to play their way out of tricky situations rather than having to clear the ball and risk losing possession.
Another dimension of Evans’ game which is often overlooked is his ability to turn defence into attack within seconds of receiving the ball. Very few players in the league are as technically gifted as Evans is and it’s an aspect of his game which his is not afraid to use to his advantage. Over and over again this season we have seen Evans pick up the ball and dribble his way into the opposition half with full control over the ball, only for him to then pick out a Paul Scholes-esque pass. It’s the youngsters ability to pass and dribble with both feet so seamlessly that really makes him stand out from other defenders. His passing range isn’t too shabby either with him picking off 30 yard cross field balls as easily as he does a 5 yard passes back to the goalie. Only the very few talented defenders of the world can boast a passing completion rate of 90% and still play as many attacking through balls as Evans does.
Our game against Stoke was a perfect demonstration of Evans’ quality at playing the role of defender-come-midfielder. When United were struggling to break down the compact Stoke City midfield, Evans was able to pick the ball up in his own half, make a surging run forward and stay in and around the centre of the pitch while Rio played his usual sweeper role at the back. What this did is allow the midfielders the freedom to push on and join the strikers in the box to try and get a goal. The only way that the midfield can afford to make these attacking runs is if they know their position is being covered by a reliable player. That player has been Jonny Evans on countless of occasions this season.
The Northern Ireland international even went on to break his United goal duct by scoring the winner against Wolves this season. Add that to the two assists to his name, his incredible passing stats and it becomes quite evident that Jonny Evans is more than your average British ‘no nonsense’ centre back who would hoof the ball up the field at the first given instant. Instead, Evans is a rare breed of continental style defender similar to the likes of Lucio and our very own Rio Ferdinand when he was younger. Calm, assured on the ball and able to wriggle themselves out of difficult situations while maintaining possession of the ball.
Looking back at how much a miss we all expected Vidic to be after he was ruled out for the season, and how much City have been struggling without their captain Vincent Kompany, it all becomes much more evident as to just how good and important Jonny Evans has been for us this season. His development over the year has been nothing short of sensational and thanks to his willingness to improve and prove his doubters wrong, we have hardly been affected by our captains’ absences. Should all our centre backs remain at United next season and all maintain good fitness levels, I am almost certain that Sir Alex will no longer have a preferred centre back partnership but instead will rotate between the three of Rio, Vidic and Evans who has now proven to us all that he has all the qualities to become our main future centre back and even possibly, Manchester United captain.