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Evans Confounds Critics And Sceptics Alike To Help Shepherd United Towards Title #20

April 20, 2012

Jonny Evans has stepped in for injured centre-half and leader Nemanja Vidić, excelling above expectations and reputation in helping to shepherd United towards a seemingly-inevitable twentieth crown. SportingBlogs takes a closer look…

When Nemanja Vidić was injured against FC Basel and a nine-month recovery process announced, many feared for Manchester United’s title chances, not least manager Sir Alex Ferguson who recently admitted that his ‘heart sank a little’ on account of the news. Title challenges are often built around a solid defence (six of the last nine Premier Leagues have been won by the most miserly defence) and as such their talismanic centre-half – last season’s Barclays player of the year – would be missed for his own attributes as much as the seeming lack of attributes possessed by the guy set to replace him – the then 23-year-old Northern Irish defender, Jonny Evans.

There is no denying that Evans had struggled in previous seasons; the reckless lunge on Bolton’s Stuart Holden and his culpability for the four-goal mauling against West Ham in the Carling Cup last term being perhaps amongst the most epitomical examples. Infrequent starts, inconsistent performances, often targeted as the weaker defender and too often out of his depth, many felt the writing was on the wall for Evans’ United career (à la Darron Gibson or Ben Foster), especially with the arrivals of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. However, with the young English duo’s versatility and misfortune with injury further reducing competition at centre-back, Evans has been afforded a long-term run in the side. The previously fifth-choice centre-half has now played the most minutes in the position for United this term and has gone from strength to strength in the process.

He and Rio Ferdinand had become the cornerstone of our defence. […] There is no doubt he has been helped playing alongside the experience of Rio and he is now arguably the best defender in the country. Together they have been rock solid to give us great consistency in defence.

– Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson (via manutd.com)

The rabbit-in-the-headlights Evans that saw red in the 1-6 mauling to rivals Manchester City in October – having also given Mario Balotelli an acre of room for City’s opening goal – has been replaced with an astute and dependable defender who shepherded the prolific Robin van Persie into ‘one of his quietest games all season’ at the Emirates in January.

Wins over Liverpool and away to Tottenham and Arsenal have been secured, with an eye-catching eleven clean sheets from eighteen appearances being the Northern Irishman’s headline statistic. Tellingly, perhaps, his two sole missed games since taking Vidić’s reins in early December were a humiliating home defeat to basement-dwellers Blackburn and a three-goal humbling away to Newcastle.

His consistent selection alongside the experience of Rio Ferdinand has spread confidence in his own abilities and given United a solid and dependable cornerstone upon which they have built their post-derby title challenge. With Evans at the heart of their defence, United have won all-but two games from eighteen and shipped just nine goals in the process (helping the Red Devils to a goal difference of +40 for the period) as local and title rivals City have been relentlessly reeled in and overhauled.

Interestingly enough, Evans’ defensive statistics are nothing exceptional, rather simply steady and dependable. Figures such as 1.2 tackles-, 1.9 interceptions-, 0.3 offsides won- and 1.0 blocked shots-per-game are modest to say the least, however this perhaps reflects well on just how important the simple art of consistency in selection – and the confidence this can inspire – can prove.

A measure of his increased confidence is the willingness with which he receives and distributes the ball – Evans makes 47.9 passes-per-game for the Reds, a figure only bettered by (understandably) United’s central-midfielders, Wayne Rooney and energetic right-back Rafael da Silva. It is undoubtedly telling that the days of Manchester United fans’ forums discussing how much of a liability he was are long-gone, replaced by discussions that centre on praise for one of Ferguson’s ‘unsung heroes.’

Manchester United now currently hold a five-point lead atop the Premier League and in many peoples’ eyes are champions-elect (not least the bookies’: United 1/8, City 5/1, Coral). With the Northern Ireland international now offering an assured dependability alongside Rio Ferdinand at centre-half, it is safe to say that his esteemed manager’s patience has gradually paid off; in Fergusons’s words: ‘we are now seeing the value of nurturing him.’

When Vidić’s lengthy absence was announced, the talk and focus was on how badly United would miss him, not least with the previously haphazard and error-prone Jonny Evans as his replacement. Evans was expected to be a liability, but a consistent run of appearances has brought out an improved defender, one who has dispelled the fears of critics and sceptics alike in helping United to what is likely to be their twentieth league title. That Vidić’s absence has barely had a mention in recent months is surely statement enough on its own…

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