It’s over 50 years since a boy from Northern Ireland set out on his journey to become a Manchester United legend. Now, Paddy McNair is no George Best, but the stylish defender has the potential to become a fans’ favourite at Old Trafford after breaking into the first team this season.
McNair has rewarded manager Louis van Gaal’s commitment to promoting youth at United and he has demonstrated that he has the talent, given time and patience, to become a long-standing fixture of the team. He could even save United big money in the transfer market.
Who is Paddy McNair?
McNair has come through the youth ranks at United after joining the club from Ballyclare Colts in Northern Ireland. He initially arrived as an attacking midfielder, but was transformed into a defender during his time in the youth set-up and has been used at the back since Van Gaal handed him his debut against West Ham United in September.
He has made a total of 14 Premier League appearances for United to date, and also featured twice in the FA Cup. He has primarily been deployed at centre-half, either as part of a back four, or in the three-man defence Van Gaal used for spells during the season. McNair did play at right-back in the FA Cup fourth-round replay win against Cambridge United in February.
McNair, who has just turned 20, was rewarded for breaking into the first team this season with a new contract in February, which keeps him at the club until 2017, with the option of a further year. At the time of signing the deal, Van Gaal acknowledged McNair has all the attributes to become a top player after previously suggesting he could be United’s right-back for the next decade.
He was given his international debut in Northern Ireland’s game against Scotland in March and, long term, he could replace Jonny Evans for both club and country. He is likely to be a mainstay of the squad next season when a more realistic title challenge is expected under Van Gaal and a free bet offer will be worth taking if you fancy McNair to help United win the Premier League.
Style of play, Strengths and Weaknesses
As you would expect of a player who started out as a No.10, McNair is confident in possession and this is one of his key strengths. With Van Gaal extremely keen for his defenders to be comfortable on the ball and capable of starting up attacks, it’s no surprise to see why McNair has emerged, almost out of nowhere, to become a regular member of the first-team squad.
You only have to look at his recent performances in the defeats by Chelsea and Everton to notice how composed he is on the ball. Against Chelsea, McNair was happy to bring the ball into the opposition half and he even tested Thibaut Courtois with one shot from distance. Against Everton, there were several occasions, particularly in the first half, when McNair was confident enough to run 40-50 yards with the ball from defence before finding a team-mate with a pass. With Van Gaal eager for his United team to dominate possession, having a player like McNair in the side to join in the attack is extremely important. There is certainly a Dutch style to the way he brings the ball out of defence.
Perhaps where McNair does need to improve, or maybe just demonstrate more confidence, is in how he uses the ball when he brings it forward. The majority of the time he has carried the ball out of defence confidently into space, but he then picks out a safe pass to a team-mate either on the left wing, or in to the striker’s feet. If he can show an ability to play more slide-rule passes in behind defenders, it would really bring on his game and offer more to United’s attack.
There have also been comparisons to team-mate Michael Carrick in terms of his playing style, given how comfortable he is on the ball and his generally unhurried demeanour. He did impress for the Under 21s in a holding midfield role against their Liverpool counterparts back in January. Again, this versatility demonstrates traits associated with Dutch football and indicates why he has been used by Van Gaal.
Another viable comparison to Carrick is how McNair can read the game when the ball is in front of him. When he can see how opposition attacks are shaping up, especially when the ball is on the floor, McNair is quick to position himself so he can intercept or break the play up. It is clear that he is what you would call a footballer’s defender.
The one area where McNair is lacking at the moment is in a certain defensive resoluteness. He was substituted during the first half of the 2-1 win at Southampton in December when Van Gaal felt McNair had lost his confidence. He conceded several chances and struggled with the physical threat posed by Shane Long and Graziano Pelle. And, while he generally dealt well with Didier Drogba against Chelsea, he struggled physically up against Everton striker Romelu Lukaku. He was also weak in the challenge on James McCarthy in the lead-up to Everton’s first goal and then lost the ball in a dangerous position in the second half.
Another area which requires defensive improvement is when the ball is played in behind him. While he is strong when the ball is in front of him, he has shown he can struggle when he has to turn back to his own goal, as demonstrated when he fouled Darren Fletcher to concede the free-kick from which West Brom scored their winner. As a right-footed player on the left side of the defence, it’s only natural there will be occasions when he is slightly out of position and he will learn how to sharpen up his positional sense.
His defensive attributes, especially from a physical point of view, will improve with experience given that he didn’t start out as a natural defender.
What does the future hold?
It’s not a popular view in wake of a 3-0 defeat, but convinced #MUFC have unearthed a world-class defender in Paddy McNair, and still 19.
— Sam Pilger (@sampilger) April 26, 2015
The future looks extremely bright for McNair and there is no reason why he can’t become a United regular for the next decade and more, be it at right-back, centre-back or even in midfield. With doubts over the long-term futures of the likes of Evans and Phil Jones, McNair has already demonstrated that he can make his mark in the starting line-up and not look out of place.
He would probably benefit from a full season of playing first-team football and a loan move to another Premier League club could be of use next term, if he isn’t going to play 30-odd games for United. However, if United sign a player like Mats Hummels, for instance, then McNair may benefit more from learning alongside a defender with more experience.