Pallister: United's case for the defence
Defenders are the unsung heroes of football clubs across the land. While a match-winning goal will be etched into a fans' memory for a lifetime, a match-saving tackle will be quickly forgotten. The richer the attacking talents of a team's frontline, the more overlooked the personnel making up their backline are likely to be, which is why the achievements of Manchester United's defensive icons are all the more admirable.
Despite being renowned for their offensive aptitude, United have had players of real defensive calibre littered throughout their history. With flair-heavy forwards such as George Best, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo hogging the spotlight over the years, there has still been room for the likes of Bill Foulkes, Steve Bruce and Nemanja Vidic to establish and cement enviable reputations.
Add Johnny Carey, Martin Buchan and Jaap Stam to the aforementioned names and the surface - immaculately varnished as it is - is still only being scratched. Since arriving at the club in 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson has maintained the attacking traditions of United while also creating defensive foundations to allow those players ahead of the backline to flourish.
From the Bruce-Pallister partnership of his first championship-winning side through to the Stam-Johnsen combination that helped win the Champions League in 1999 and the Vidic-Ferdinand pairing of recent times, Ferguson has formed some formidable defensive units.
United's unbeaten start to the current season has predictably been characterised by goals aplenty, but the impressive form of young defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling has also set journalists' tongues wagging and filled up the club's message boards. Former Red Devils centre back Pallister, who won nine major titles in his nine years at Old Trafford, has seen Ferguson's team-building skills first-hand and believes that his ability to consistently build a solid defensive foundation is no fluke.
"He brings them in gradually - he did it last year with Smalling and he's done it over the years, bringing in young kids and easing them in gently," Pallister tells ESPNsoccernet. "He's had to maybe bring Jones and Smalling in together a lot quicker than might have been expected of the injuries to Nemanja and Rio but that's the way he operates. People say it's almost as if he just makes one team after another but he doesn't: it's like a seamless transition throughout the period of years. He's aware that players are getting older and may have any injury problems so he starts looking to the future. He's building these teams maybe four or five years in advance before we actually realise."
Pallister has been impressed with United's current rearguard options and, here, analyses the contribution of the club's first-team defenders for ESPNsoccernet.
Pallister on United's defence
Patrice Evra: "He's experienced, got pace and is a great attacking full back - one of the best in the world. He knows what it takes to win big games and big trophies. It was a difficult season for him last year, because of the situation with France at the World Cup - I think there was a little bit of a fallout from that for a period of time. He's got a wealth of experience, is one of the leaders in the dressing-room and one of the lads who makes the dressing-room a fun place to be because he's always having a bit of a joke. The experience of Patrice Evra, especially when you've got some of these younger players in the side, is invaluable."
Fabio and Rafael: "The two twins are both full of energy, full of beans. You know what you're going to get from them: every time they put on a United shirt they're going to give 100%. At times, they can both maybe be a little bit rash, though that is something they will learn with time and maturity. Certainly, the energy levels of Manchester United go up when either of them plays. Whether they are the future left and right back of this United side, who knows? Smalling has played out there on the right-hand side and done ever so well and Phil Jones has filled in there as well and looked equally at home. It's a great problem for the manager to have, each player being competitive."
Nemanja Vidic: "An absolute rock. He took over the captaincy last year and was absolutely fantastic. He's a defender that's very much in the mould of a Steve Bruce or a Tony Adams - he puts his head in where angels fear to tread. He's a great leader, a motivational kind of player and a great captain."
Rio Ferdinand: "Whenever Rio plays in that back four, you know you've got a world-class centre half playing there. Yes, he's had his injury problems, and he's picked up this one at the start of the season that has given Chris Smalling and Phil Jones a chance, but there's still plenty to come from Rio Ferdinand. He still looks like a Rolls Royce of a player when he's playing and I'm sure the manager knows the exact worth of Rio."
Chris Smalling: "A pretty similar story to myself. He came from non-league as a bit of a late starter in the game but obviously made people and sit up and take notice of him at Fulham. He came into the side last year and probably played more games than he expected to. He never let anyone down, looked very accomplished and is a great one for the future. I'm sure he'd like to play centre back but it doesn't always pan out that way - I remember Paul Parker coming to United expecting to play centre half but ending up a right back. If you get a starting place in a Manchester United side, you play wherever the manager asks."
Jonny Evans: "Last year was a tough one for Jonny - he didn't play as many games as he would have liked, which made it hard for him when he came in. I remember the Carling Cup game against West Ham [which United lost 4-0] was a particularly difficult one but his performances towards the end of the season were greatly improved. Sir Alex rates Jonny highly. He's been involved plenty so far this season and I think he has a lot to offer United in the years to come. He's a great professional."
Phil Jones: "I think he's been phenomenal. His age belies the maturity he shows on the pitch. He looks as though he's been there a number of years already - you can see him organising and bossing people on the pitch and for a 19-year-old kid to do that stands him in good stead for the future. He looks an exceptional player and one who's obviously got a great future - obviously I think and hope it's going to be for a long time for Manchester United."
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Gary Pallister was speaking on behalf of Barclays Ticket Office. Every 90 minutes throughout the season Barclays is offering fans the chance to win free tickets to Barclays Premier League matches by going to a Barclays ATM and requesting a receipt, or by visiting www.barclaysticketoffice.com