Changing of the Manchester United Guard

A month after the current crop of champions collected Manchester United’s 19th league title, it appears there may be more in the future as the next generation of the Red Devils defence seems to be developing nicely.

With an ageing squad and the retirements of Van Der Sar, Scholes and Neville, it appeared United may have been falling behind their rivals. However in recent months, and particularly the current Under 21’s European Championships in Denmark, it seems the future may be very bright. The solid central defensive partnership of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are showing positive signs that once the existing duo of Ferdinand and Vidic move on, their legacy is in safe hands.

Jones, quoted as a ‘colossus’ by the Young Lions coach Stuart Pearce after their clean sheet against Ukraine on Wednesday, has seen a rapid rise in fortunes over the last two years. A month after his 18th birthday he made his premier league debut for Blackburn in a 1-1 against Chelsea. He was already highly tipped as one for the future at this stage, and all his performances after this have only helped to enhance his growing reputation.

Then last week the confirmation of his reported £20 million move across the North West to Old Trafford thrust the teenager into the limelight with the responsibility of continuing the run of silverware on the red side of Manchester. His calm, composed manner along with his physical presence in the air despite being under 6ft all indicate that the 19 year-old may have many years to come in the Red of Man United as well as the Three Lions of England.

If Jones’ rise is described as rapid then Chris Smalling’s is meteoric. From the non-league obscurity at Maidstone United he achieved a ‘Roy of the Rovers-esque’ move to Fulham at the age of 18. A few premier league games for the Londoners, a move to Manchester United and a few under 21 appearances later Smalling was named in Fabio Capello’s squad to play France in November of last year.

The 6ft 3’ 21 year-old may pose a more obvious physical character, however along with the obvious aerial ability, his technical ability with the ball at his feet, along with Jones, was a key factor in Ferguson’s decision to bring him to Old Trafford. With United’s want to dominate possession and wear teams down with the metronomic passing, two centre backs comfortable on the ball was always key. At the time of his move to Manchester and subsequent England call ups, there had been some critics that he wasn’t the natural successor to Ferdinand’s position. However, during his 33 appearances for Man United he has seemed to silence most of the criticisms with assured displays beyond his years and with only 31 goals conceded in those games the moulding of Smalling into United’s next leader appears to be working seamlessly.

In addition, recent events in Denmark have further highlighted the pairings strength as a double act. With only one goal conceded in two games, against the tournament favourites Spain, the young duo are forming a firm partnership that may pose a stern test for any Premier League strike-force. The longer the pair get to develop their relationship in the England shirt the greater benefits United will reap in the long term.

However, a major problem still remains in the form of an Edwin Van Der Sar shaped hole between the posts. And again we look to the Under 21 Championships and the Spanish number 1 jersey worn by current Atletico Madrid keeper David de Gea. There has been increasing speculation in recent weeks and months as to a move from Mainland Europe to Manchester and it appears that a move to the Premier League is imminent for the 20 year-old. Having only conceded one goal in the tournament so far, even that being a dubiously offside strike from Danny Welbeck as part of Spanish side renowed for its attacking flair, he may have the features of the right man for the job. The management team at Old Trafford have certainly already signalled that they feel he is the right man, possessing the right qualities to take on the unenviable task of United keeper following in the footsteps of Van Der Sar and of course the ‘Great Dane’ Peter Schmeichel. However having already helped Atletico Madrid to Europa League success it would seem he has the character.

So with many clubs searching for defensive stability and a dependable backline at present it appears United have an abundance of talent not only within the current class of Ferdinand, Vidic and Van Der Sar but also in the future with the names Smalling, Jones and in all probability, de Gea. Therefore as we watch these future stars at the tournament currently taking place, it may be a wise move for other competitors to take note of the talent on display or they may find themselves trailing United as the Red Devils collect another 19 titles.