This could still be a season that represents tangible progress for Manchester United.
There was the flicker of a genuine Premier League title challenge at the beginning of the year but it proved nothing more than a fantasy when rivals Manchester City came steamrollering along.
Nonetheless, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side should comfortably qualify for the Champions League next season by finishing second – albeit a distant second to Pep Guardiola’s champions elect.
Manchester United’s regular central defensive pairing of Harry Maguire (left) and Victor Lindelof (right) has come in for criticism this season but there is a general trend of progress
The feeling persists that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to look for a new defender this summer
If Solskjaer can add either the FA Cup or the Europa League to that, his first piece or pieces of silverware as United manager, then an encouraging season will become a pretty good one.
But for Old Trafford legend Rio Ferdinand, it’s crystal clear what is holding this United side back.
The regular centre-back pairing of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have come in for plenty of criticism as United’s results and fortunes have undulated throughout the campaign.
United have certainly kept more clean sheets in recent months than at the beginning of the season, when their defence looked susceptible to almost any opponent.
But Ferdinand believes the area needs to be addressed if United are to be a genuinely successful side under Solskjaer’s lead.
Former United defender Rio Ferdinand said on his YouTube show that Maguire and Lindelof are susceptible in one-on-one situations and it’s one of Solskjaer’s ‘biggest concerns’
With Maguire the club captain, it appears Lindelof is the one to be replaced in the summer
Eric Bailly (left) is an option in central defence but his season has been disrupted by injury
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated; April dates TBC
Sunday Leicester City (A) FA Cup quarter-final
April 3 Brighton (H)
April 10 Tottenham (A)
April 17 Burnley (H)
‘I think that’s Ole’s biggest concern – can he leave Maguire one versus one on the halfway line? Or Lindelof?’ Ferdinand told his YouTube channel this week.
‘It’s proven that you can’t as that’s not their main attributes. Harry Maguire is good at a lot of other things but that area, that’s one of his weak points.’
It suggests that Ferdinand believes United must go into the transfer market in search of a quicker centre-half when the summer window opens to partner captain Maguire at the back.
Indeed, reports suggest a new centre-back ostensibly to replace Lindelof and Eric Bailly is one of four key positions that United will look to reinforce in the summer market.
A prolific centre-forward, right-back cover and another central midfielder are other priorities but Ferdinand isn’t far off in suggesting a central defender should be the main concern.
Is this fair on Maguire and Lindelof, though? We compared them to a selection of other regular centre-backs at the clubs towards the top end of the Premier League this season.
BEATEN BY OPPONENTS
It’s fair to say Ferdinand has made an astute observation with this one. The stats do not look pretty for the Man United duo when it comes to opponents dribbling past them.
In 29 Premier League appearances this season, Maguire has been beaten 11 times by an opposition player, while Lindelof has been done nine times in just 22 appearances.
If you compare those figures to other central defenders who play regularly in top half sides this season, only Toby Alderweireld at Tottenham (dribbled past 11 times in 18 games), Wesley Fofana at Leicester (beaten 12 times in 19 outings) and Everton’s Michael Keane (11 times in 27 games) compare.
The stats do back up Ferdinand’s assertion that Maguire is vulnerable in one-on-one situations
Contrast that to the solid defensive duo of John Stones and Ruben Dias at leaders Manchester City. Dias has been dribbled past only six times in 27 league games and Stones just five times in 18.
Look at Chelsea as well. The veteran Thiago Silva, 36, has been beaten just five times and Kurt Zouma only twice, both from 17 appearances in the league.
We’re all aware that Maguire and Lindelof aren’t the quickest defenders but the frequency they are beaten by quicker opponents dribbling past is quite alarming and does suggest a quick defender who can cover is needed.
Manchester City’s defensive duo of Ruben Dias (left) and John Stones are strong in this area
Again, this doesn’t look good for the United pair. They concede fouls in much larger quantities than their peers at the other top clubs and it ties into their susceptibility against fast opponents.
Maguire has conceded 35 fouls in Premier League games, an average of 1.2 per match. Lindelof has given away 20 fouls.
Fair enough, Ruben Dias has conceded 19 fouls but it’s at a lower average of 0.7 per game. Stones, remarkably, barely concedes any – just five in 18 league outings.
Maguire and Lindelof are both guilty of conceding too many fouls compared to their peers
Everton’s centre-back pairing of Ben Godfrey (left) and Michael Keane barely concede fouls
Thiago Silva brings all his experience to bear when it comes to not giving away silly fouls – just nine conceded all season from 17 games.
The Everton centre-backs Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey also hardly give any fouls away – just 0.4 on average per 90 minutes.
In terms of winning the ball back in tackles, Maguire does compare fairly favourably with his Premier League peers. He’s won 12 of 22 tackles made this season, a slightly better rate than Lindelof.
Leicester’s Fofana and Everton’s Godfrey seem to be the ball-winning kings in the tackle with 21 and 20 successful ones respectively, while Alderweireld has won 18.
United’s pairing have similar figures in this regard to Stones and Dias though you might imagine City’s defence is put under less pressure in most games, necessitating fewer tackles in the first place.
Tottenham’s Belgian centre-back Toby Alderweireld ranks highly when it comes to tackling
Wesley Fofana (left) has really excelled during his first season in English football at Leicester
BLOCKS AND INTERCEPTIONS
Ferdinand did speak about Maguire having other strong points and this is definitely one of them. 51 interceptions at an average of 1.8 per league game is considerably higher than everyone else.
It demonstrates that Maguire has an excellent reading of the game and is more often than not able to anticipate when an opponent is going to play the ball.
Dias has made 31 interceptions at 1.2 per game, by means of comparison, while Fofana (45 at 2.5) and Keane (39 at 1.5) also do well when it comes to cutting the ball out.
Lindelof, for the record, averages just one interception per 90 minutes in league games suggesting Maguire does most of the anticipation when they play together.
Maguire’s reading of the game and anticipation is spot on the majority of the time
Maguire makes more blocks too (19) but it’s the Everton duo of Keane and Godfrey with 23 and 24 respectively, and also Eric Dier at Spurs (24), who chuck themselves in the way of shots most often.
Perhaps that’s because they’re required to absorb more pressure in games, certainly when it comes to Jose Mourinho’s cautious approach to many games.
RECOVERING THE BALL
This is a definite Maguire strength – getting to the ball first and securing possession for United. He’s done it 171 times in 29 league games, almost six times a game.
For clarity, a recovery is defined by Opta as ‘where a player recovers the ball in a situation where neither team has possession or where the ball has been played directly to him by an opponent.’
Lindelof slides in on Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne during this month’s derby win
So a good few will come from the opponent giving the ball away when trying to crack United’s defence but it also shows Maguire is very good at seizing the ball for his team.
By comparison, it’s 117 recoveries for Dias, 113 for Fofana, 101 for Dier and 99 for Lindelof.
Add into this the fact that carrying the ball out of defence is a strength for Maguire and it’s a definite plus point.
This is probably what Ferdinand had in mind when speaking about Maguire’s strongest attributes because the two players are very much an echo of each other.
Maguire wins, on average, four aerial duels and six other duels per match which is head and shoulders above any other regular centre-halve at a team doing well this season.
Maguire has some of the best stats in the Premier League when it comes to duels won
Sometimes the United skipper’s willingness to stick his head in where it hurts does cause pain
We all recognise a player unafraid to stick his head in where it hurts or use his physicality to muscle opponents off the ball.
There’s a sense that Lindelof often needs covering as well, especially when it comes to defending aerial balls, and his average of 2.3 aerial balls won every game is below par.
So it seems Ferdinand’s assessment is spot on. Maguire can be a liability when faced with speedy opponents who can just dribble around him. He probably does concede too many fouls.
But he does make up for this with his ability to win the ball in the air, to cut out passes with an intelligent reading of the game and to win back possession for his team in various ways.
That’s why his place in the United side isn’t in doubt.
Lindelof, with his weaker statistics, remains his regular partner but you really have to wonder if that will be the situation next season if United wish to move forward.
The Opta statistics below compare Maguire and Lindelof to other centre-backs at top half Premier League clubs who have played regularly this season. Click to enlarge