While it will not be the main item on the agenda, it is fair to say that Manchester United’s centre-back strength will be under the microscope in Wednesday’s Europa League final against Villarreal.
Of course, any apparent issues at the back will be drowned out – at least initially – if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guides United to their first piece of silverware during his tenure.
However, as the game approaches, it is at the heart of their defence where United’s biggest problem lies, with Harry Maguire unlikely to be fit for the game.
Love him or loathe him, there is little doubt Maguire has been United’s best – and certainly most present – centre-back since he joined the club in 2019, with the defeat to his former club Leicester City earlier this month the first Premier League game he had missed for the Red Devils.
He did not feature in any of the final four league fixtures and, even though he has travelled to Gdansk, a starting role seems highly unlikely.
Therefore, it will either be down to former Villarreal man Eric Bailly or Axel Tuanzebe to partner Victor Lindelof – either way, it is hardly the most convincing of partnerships.
If United are to bridge the gap to Manchester City, it has been a long-held belief of many pundits and columnists that centre-back is one of the few areas they have significant room for improvement in, with the options available in Maguire’s absence highlighting that.
Up against them on Wednesday will be Pau Torres, a central defender who has been linked with some of the world’s biggest clubs, including United. Could he be the long-term answer they are looking for?
The playmaker at centre-back
Maguire has enjoyed a solid season for United, his influence at the back made all the more notable in the two matches they have lost without him. The main question mark is over the man next to him, which is usually Lindelof.
For a period last year, it appeared as though United would try to bring in a left-footed centre-back to partner Maguire, who would be allowed to shift back to the right side of the pairing.
Nathan Ake seemed an obvious candidate given Bournemouth’s relegation and the fact Solskjaer appeared to indicate his interest in the Dutchman after a game against the Cherries – his comments caught by a nearby television camera.
He went to Manchester City instead, but Torres has a similar profile in that he is a left-footed centre-back who is praised for his ability on the ball.
Playing out from the back has been a frequent aspect of United’s play under Solskjaer, and Torres would certainly fit in – his tally of 747 forward passes in LaLiga this term were bettered by only Jules Kounde (918) and Clement Lenglet (812) in terms of fellow defenders.
Where he does better than both, however, is bringing the ball out of defence. His 432 progressive carries – movements that take the ball more than five metres upfield – is 42 more than any other LaLiga defender, while he has carried the ball 4,784.4 metres up the pitch, again a high for the league.
This has even translated into having an attacking influence, with his two assists at the end of a carry only bettered by Jose Gaya – a full-back – among defenders. In fact, he’s the only centre-back to get more than one assist in this fashion.
121 – Pau Torres attempted 121 passes for Spain
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