The loss of the experienced duo of Vidic and Ferdinand left Manchester United short in terms of both personnel and experience at the back. Unsurprisingly, United were in the market for a central defender and secured the signing of Marcos Rojo. Rahul Natarajan assesses the Argentine’s strengths and weaknesses and if he’s the solution to United’s defensive woes.
After a transfer saga, while certainly not as drawn out as sagas United fans have had to endure in the past but still complicated in its own right by the complex system of third-party ownership and the possibility of a legal battle, Manchester United finally got their man, Marcos Rojo, from Sporting Lisbon. With talk of Mats Hummels and Mehdi Benatia clearly on the forefront of most fans’ minds, Rojo has the potential of coming across as an underwhelming signing. United needed a center-back and cover for Luke Shaw at left wing-back, and with Rojo, they have killed two birds with one stone. But with United desperate to return to the Champions League, is Marcos Rojo enough?
Even before the transfer window began it was clear that Manchester United needed defensive reinforcements. Club captain Nemanja Vidic signed a pre-contract with Inter Milan in January, and veteran Rio Ferdinand was released and allowed to join Queens Park Rangers. As a result, United were left with only three senior center-backs: Phil Jones (22), Jonny Evans (26), and Chris Smalling (24). Besides the obvious lack of experience at the back, a weakness exacerbated by the departure of Patrice Evra and the signing of teenager Luke Shaw, each of United’s center-backs is notoriously injury prone. All three spent months on the treatment table at different points of time last season, contributing to the defensive instability of United’s nightmare of a season under David Moyes.
The issue is aggravated by Louis van Gaal’s switch to a back three: United simply had no cover at center-back as a result. To make matters worse, Evans missed United’s opening day defeat to Swansea; 20 year old Tyler Blackett made his first-team debut in his place. While Blackett did not individually contribute to the loss, the lack of cohesion and leadership at the back was apparent against Swansea, as United succumbed to a 2-1 defeat. Within four days of the defeat, United gave into Sporting’s demands and signed Marcos Rojo.
Opinions of Manchester United’s new number 5 are certainly mixed. While Rojo went into the World Cup expected to be Argentina’s weak link, he emerged from their excellent yet ultimately disappointing campaign as the only Argentine in the FIFA World Cup Best XI (based on Castrol Index rankings). He excelled in both facets of the game, highlighting his ability to feature as a wing-back in van Gaal’s 3-5-2. However, his primary role at Old Trafford will be as a left-sided center-back, and this is where the critics of Rojo emerge. For all his strengths as an athletic defender and adept ball-player, the main weakness is Rojo’s game is his rashness. Rojo is comfortable on the ball and likes to bring the ball out of the back, a characteristic that will suit van Gaal’s system. However, his boldness can lead to mistakes, and mistakes can lead to rash challenges: last season, Rojo accumulated 21 yellow cards and 4 red cards. His pace and ability to recover means his propensity for defensive errors does not hurt his team as much as it would for another defender, but his lapses should worry van Gaal. His weaknesses include his marking and positioning, crucial traits for a central defender. The general consensus of Rojo is that he can be immense in one game and a liability in the next.
However, Manchester United’s new back three will undoubtedly bring out the best in Rojo’s game. The presence of an extra center-back at hand to sweep up behind Rojo will reduce the effect of his errors. The back three will also give him the confidence to step out of the backline. Aside from bringing the ball out from the back to start attacks, van Gaal also relies on his center-backs to step into midfield to win the ball at times. During the World Cup, van Gaal at times employed a man-marking system, requiring his center-backs to at times follow their men into midfield. This approach was similarly seen on United’s pre-season tour and factors immensely in van Gaal’s pressing system and defensive shape. Rojo will fit in excellently with this system, due to his impressive ability to read the game: he averaged 3.2 interceptions per game for Sporting last season. His knowledge of when to leave the backline to win the ball will be crucial for United defensively. At the same time, Rojo’s athleticism helps him to cover the mistakes of his fellow defenders as well: his pace allows him to make last-ditch challenges and necessary (and sometimes extravagant!) clearances when the other center-backs are beaten. Rojo averaged 7.4 clearances per game last season and he will certainly help the likes of Jones, Smalling, and Evans out of tight spots.
However, is Rojo enough? Regardless of his talent and his potential and his perfect fit in the mold of the ideal Louis van Gaal center-back, Rojo does not solve the problem of experience. The Argentine is 24 and Manchester United will be his first club in a Top 5 league. United needed defensive cover and Rojo provides the necessary cover, but he isn’t the defensive leader United desperately need. Against Swansea, the lack of communication led to United’s downfall, and Rojo does not solve this problem (the language barrier does not help either). United need someone to marshal the troops and keep the younger defenders focused and in line, but Rojo is and cannot be that player. United’s reported defensive targets shows they know they need experience: Hummels is a World Cup winner, Champions League finalist, Bundesliga winner, and now captain of Borussia Dortmund. Thomas Vermaelen was Arsenal’s captain before his move to Barcelona. Instead, Jonny Evans is now Manchester United’s most experienced defender.
Ultimately, Rojo will most likely start as the left-sided center-back for Manchester United. He will improve the backline to a certain extent and improve United’s ball movement, but United still need another, experienced central defender to lead the team back to glory. However, with the club failing to bring in such a center-back, the pressure on the current crop has grown exponentially.
Written by Rahul Natarajan
Read all our articles in “The Devil’s Advocate” Team Blog