Marcos Rojo a shrewd signing
"From criticism in the national team to becoming the second most expensive Argentine defender in history," ran a rather unwieldy headline on the sports website of La Nación after Marcos Rojo's 20 million euro move to Manchester United was agreed on Tuesday night.
After first breaking into the Estudiantes de La Plata first team in 2008, Rojo flourished under Alejandro Sabella's management the following season. Playing at centre-back, the youngster showed promise. He was part of the squad -- coming on as a late substitute -- that almost beat Barcelona in the 2009 Club World Cup final, and by December 2010 he had earned himself a move to Spartak Moscow.
Summarising his performances during his year and a half in Moscow is an easy task even for those who don't watch the Russian league regularly because, perhaps struggling to adapt, he played just 23 matches during that spell. A move to Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon followed in mid-2012, where he soon got more regular football.
However, come the first half of 2014, Rojo was still near universally criticised in Argentina. Sabella had, by then, been made manager of the national team, and with a paucity of options for the No. 3 shirt, Rojo was his favoured figure to play left-back, a position he'd filled in at during his second season with Sporting. Pre-tournament, most who penned preview pieces had him marked down as the side's weak link.
And yet things turned out differently. He didn't exactly become the next Juan Pablo Sorin or Silvio Marzolini overnight, but Rojo did well enough to be the only Argentine named in the FIFA World Cup best XI, and his performances at left-back quickly shut up his critics.
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Of course, visibility is a wonderful thing for a footballer looking to impress the fans of his home nation, and a lack of it is what Rojo perhaps suffered from pre-World Cup, at least over the past year. Argentines are not, by and large, big on watching foreign leagues, but there is a certain amount of attention paid to the "big" European competitions in England, Spain, Italy and to a lesser extent France and Germany.
These leagues are clearly miles above the rest in terms of appeal. But Portugal? The odd match gets televised, but with no regularity, and (like the other European leagues) always on subscription TV. It's no surprise, bearing this in mind, that most Argentines were totally unaware of Rojo's improvement over last season. A manager as attentive as Sabella, it's probably safe to say, would have been an exception.
Because he did improve. ESPN FC's own European football expert Andy Brassell insists that Rojo "was absolutely awful in his first season at Sporting [the worst season in the club's history], but very good during the last campaign, which was a big surprise." Portuguese football blogger Ben Shave added: "I didn't expect much when he arrived but he formed a good partnership with Mauricio, kept the errors to a minimum and was generally something of a leader in a pretty inexperienced defence."
Crucially for Manchester United, that improvement came with Rojo playing for the most part in central defence, not -- as most United fans will have seen him during the World Cup -- at left-back. Certainly it is likely that he will mostly feature centrally for United in Louis van Gaal's 3-5-2, not least because of the large sum they've already spent on Luke Shaw at left wing-back. Van Gaal was known to want a left-footed centre-back to add to the squad -- missing out on Barcelona bound Thomas Vermaelen -- and now he's finally got one.
So what will Rojo bring to the table at United? For one thing, confidence stepping out of defence with the ball, and for that matter the confidence in his technical ability to come up with some unorthodox solutions at times. It might be an extreme example, but not many defenders are happy to clear the ball out of their own box with a rabona, as Rojo did during Argentina's opening World Cup match against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He also has pace in abundance, and that might prove very useful. At times, Rojo's positioning can be suspect and, as he's joining a team with a young defence learning a new system, his athleticism could come in handy if he needs to bail himself or teammates out of a tight spot.
The down side is an aggression he doesn't always manage to rein in. He's not a dirty player, but can be overenthusiastic in the tackle; it's no coincidence he was the only Argentine to pick up a suspension during this year's World Cup (for the quarterfinal against Belgium). In Argentina, that's a trait that doesn't tend to be coached out of young defenders; Van Gaal might have to give it a go now.
And there's another important point about Rojo's signing: his relationship with the boss. Perhaps his happiest moments as a player have come under Sabella (early on at Estudiantes, and recently for Argentina). In no small part, that's because Sabella knows him well, but it's also because Sabella constructs a system and gives precise instructions to his players to get the best out of each individual -- a trait van Gaal shares.
Is Rojo an upgrade on Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans or Phil Jones? Probably not. But neither is he a downgrade, and therein lies the point: If United are to play three at the back, an extra centre-back is an absolute necessity. An upgrade would be nice, but as they struggle to find one, United will settle for a similar standard to those already in the squad, especially given the fitness issues in defence (his ability to cover at wing back might prove handy, too). If Rojo can flourish under van Gaal's guidance, he could well turn into a shrewd purchase.