Despite Smalling's extension, Man United could look to rebuild defence
When met with criticism from the media, Louis van Gaal has repeatedly boasted about Manchester United's defensive record this season.
"When you read the papers back from the beginning and you have seen the criticism of all our defenders, and now we are the third in the Premier League table in conceding goals," the manager said, ahead of United's 2-1 win at Liverpool.
"We never have had compliments. They have said our defenders were very lousy -- but we have the same defenders and they are still saying we are poor defending. These are the same defenders I had at the beginning of the season."
When you look at the defensive records of Premier League teams this season, only Southampton and Chelsea are better than United, which paints the impression of a team with a pretty solid defence. However, when you consider that a poor Chelsea side is running away with the title, or that United even stand a chance of finishing in the top four after playing so badly for so much of the season, this year isn't the best measure of quality.
United having a great defensive record, statistically, is a great argument for why stats should be used sparingly when discussing football. While there's no denying that United look, by and large, defensively stronger recently, that is probably as much to do with how much better they are offensively. The club is playing much more attack-minded football, meaning the opposition is usually on the backfoot, and not posing a great threat to the defence.
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Also, Van Gaal must certainly recognise that PFA Player of the Year nominee, David De Gea, has had an awful lot to do with United's great record, despite the praise he lavishes on the much-criticised defence.
The frailty of the defence didn't come as a surprise to United supporters though, who were left bemused to see the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra leave the club, three of the most experienced players in the squad, with just Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw coming in as replacements.
It came as even less of a surprise to see how regularly youngsters Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair were relied upon either, with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans continuing their ridiculous record of injuries.
Less than a month ago, Jones acknowledged how much of a struggle it had been at the back this season, but had some excuses for that. "It has been difficult for us," he admitted to the Manchester Evening News.
"It had been documented that me and Chris were going to be the next centre-backs at United but it has not gone how we would have liked it. Somebody told me the other day that we have actually only played alongside each other about four times in four seasons.
"You cannot build a partnership on four games."
Jones undoubtedly brought this statistic to light in a bid to buy himself and Smalling more time at the club. How could they be expected to form a partnership as solid as Ferdinand and Vidic with such little playing time together? It's a valid point, but the fact they have played alongside each other so infrequently is because if one isn't injured, the other usually is, and United surely can't persist with them forever.
However, Smalling has just signed a contract extension this week, keeping him at the club until 2019, which would lead you to presume that Van Gaal sees this defender in his long-term plans. Still, it's a debatable decision by the club.
Smalling suffered some shocking performances at the start of the season, with the embarrassing 5-3 defeat against Leicester standing out, and gets caught out of position too regularly. His idiocy on derby day at the Etihad against Manchester City cost United in a 1-0 defeat last November, when he picked up two yellow cards in the first half. But he has improved as the weeks have gone by, even if he's not quite managed to win over the entire fanbase yet.
But with Dortmund's Mats Hummels, among others, being strongly linked with a move to the club, which central defenders will make way? Rojo will be safe, given that he only joined last summer and has enjoyed a decent first season at the club, and in the Premier League. He has age on his side too, having just turned 25, and you would imagine now that he has made the transition from the Portuguese league, he will only continue to improve next season.
Another defender who will certainly be at Old Trafford next season is McNair, who Van Gaal is a big fan of. He has praised the youngster for developing "very well" this year and his versatility, with Van Gaal suggesting he could be United's right-back for the next 10 years, only adds to his appeal.
It hasn't all gone smoothly for McNair though, after being subbed off in the 39th minute against Southampton after a fairly scary performance on the right of defence, but it is clear that he has a lot of potential and will be given the opportunity to develop further at United. He is calm when he brings the ball forward in to the opposition's half, he can pick out a United player, and he hasn't been shy when it comes to having an effort on goal either.
That leaves us with Evans and Jones, who both count towards the club's homegrown quota, so neither has an advantage over the other there. The former is a lifelong United fan and Van Gaal has a good track record when it comes to making a success of former academy players.
However, Evans has had a disappointing season, marred by injury, poor form, and stupidity. Just as it looked as though he would get a run in the team, he was hit with a six-match ban for spitting. The player protests his innocence, and even though the FA commission deemed him guilty of intentionally spitting at Papiss Cisse, I'm inclined to believe that he didn't spit at Cisse on purpose. That doesn't change the fact that spitting in the midst of an altercation was a ridiculous thing to do.
Evans' ban has now ended and he has five games to prove that Van Gaal shouldn't get rid of him. He was a rock at the back for United during the 2011-12 season, when Vidic ruptured his cruciate ligament, but hasn't shown anything like that sort of form on a consistent basis since then, and the manager may have already made up his mind.
Finally, it's hard to believe that the defender who reminded Sir Bobby Charlton of the great Duncan Edwards, and who Sir Alex Ferguson claimed could one day be the club's best ever player, could leave United at just 23 years old. Jones has had another season to forget and his general dopiness is a frustration for the fans.
The runs from defence that used to encourage roars from the crowd are now met with audible groans, with the supporters all too familiar with his inability to do anything with the ball once he passes the half way line. He'll run in to an opposition player, fall over or pass to the other team, on a much too regular basis.
After an impressive first season at the club, Jones hasn't really developed, and appears to be missing the influence of a more experienced player telling him what to do and where to stand. That could be seen in United's 4-2 win over Man City on April 12. As David Silva danced through United's defence, before setting up Sergio Aguero for the game's opening goal, Jones was planted to the spot in the box, marking nobody and contributing nothing. He will be grateful to Smalling and his other teammates for scoring, in a game that United went on to dominate, but he looked out of his depth all too often.
Still, maybe all will be safe for another season at least, with the rebuilding process one that takes time, and United can't afford to be short on defenders when the ones they already have appear to be made out of glass.
But it's a big few weeks for the likes of Evans and Jones, particularly now that Smalling has his contract extension. If question marks are already above their heads, they don't want to do anything to confirm to Van Gaal that they don't deserve to be at Old Trafford next season. United are still in the fight for top four, and hopefully that will only be aided by the defenders fighting for their place at the club.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.