It’s been a quietly remarkable couple of years for Jonny Evans.
Following the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, he is now the most senior and dependable central defender at Manchester United; quite the turnaround for a player who was all but written off by those too impatient or pessimistic to give youth a chance two seasons ago.
At the tail end of 2011, he was derided as a defensive liability by those needing a lone scapegoat to explain away the pain of the 6-1 home defeat suffered against Manchester City. The Northern Irishman, who received a red card after 46 minutes, soaked up much of the ire in the aftermath of the match. Following on from other rash actions in the recent past—most notably a two-footed challenge against Bolton Wanderers that earned him a dismissal after Stuart Holden came off worse in the full-blooded contest for the ball—the faultfinders seemed ready to reject him as a loose cannon unworthy of the shirt.
Yet his detractors didn’t cow him, and much like Darren Fletcher and many of the other recent academy graduates at Old Trafford, prematurely written off by the most peevish sections of the support, he emerged from the gauntlet of criticism not only intact, but stronger.
He now stands, alongside the Scottish midfielder, as a living rebuke to those so quick to savage the likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley for not already being the flawless, finished articles, still relatively early in their careers.
Just a year and half on from receiving his marching orders against City, Evans was being hailed as one of the best performers in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign in charge of United. While Ferdinand may have collected many of the plaudits for his various vintage displays en route to title number 20, it was Evans’ own maturing abilities as an all-rounder at the back that enabled the veteran to showcase his class rather than being exposed by his slowing, aged legs.
His aerial power had been obvious since he famously swotted Didier Drogba out of the sky in 2009, and with Vidic out injured for much of the season, he provided the air support to protect David de Gea’s area from on high. On the floor, his positional intelligence along with Ferdinand’s own prescient reading of the game created a radar net of cover to track and intercept potential threats before they escalated. Evans had arrived as a first team regular: wiser, fully-formed and more refined. Unfortunately, injury put paid to his follow-up season under David Moyes, although it was never clear whether he ever truly appreciated the centre-back and his abilities.
After all, Evans had never been an average, basic stopper. His comfort on the ball, capability with both feet and eye for a searching, inch-perfect ball from the back and out to the flanks or forward line marked him out early on as a potentially special player. With Phil Jones and Vidic often preferred to him even when fit, his ambitious passing and technical skill may have been mistaken as signs of him lacking the stern cynicism associated with more no-nonsense defender by his new, prosaic manager. Having claimed that Wayne Rooney had “gone soft” due to United’s focus on technique rather than power in training, maybe it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Evans’ gifts were less utilised during Moyes’ tenure?
Evans is unlikely to face any such struggles for recognition under Louis van Gaal. In fact, under the Dutchman he could find his natural talent at playing the ball forward harnessed and developed into a major feature of United’s football over the coming seasons.
During his reign in charge of Ajax in the 90’s, the long passing of Frank de Boer was embraced by the current Dutch national coach, to intensify the fluid movement and pace of his team with a direct link from his ball-playing defender up to the attackers.
Fittingly, Evans was the only British footballer selected in a European squad of the season by de Boer—now himself a manager at Ajax—in 2013, alongside fellow Red Robin van Persie and the likes of Xavi, Philipp Lahm and Cristiano Ronaldo. In contrast to his underrated status in England, there certainly doesn’t seem to be a lack of respect for the Belfast-born centre-back over in The Netherlands. And given van Gaal’s friendship with his former player, who also followed him to Barcelona, it’s possible that admiration for the United defender may be more than just a shared topic of light conversation between the two men.
Some may assume that Evans has already reached his peak, having corrected the majority of the defects in his game to become a steady presence at the back at Old Trafford. No longer the reckless youngster who divided fans between those who feared his flaws and others who celebrated his qualities, he has become a diligent keystone at the back for United; an organiser and leader for the younger defenders and an equal to the departing Champions League winners.
In Ferguson’s last season, it often seemed as though Evans was the foundation of the defence, with his partner selected to complement his well-rounded blend of finesse and function, depending on the opposition. Facing a team intent on brutalising the back line? Start him next to Vidic. Is controlling the game and retaining the ball of paramount importance? Ferdinand would get the call. Needing some extra mobility, with a touch of tenacity or poise? Jones or Smalling, respectively.
Transfer rumours continue to swirl around such exotic and exciting names as Mats Hummels, Ezequiel Garay and Eliaquim Mangala, but regardless of how realistic or fictional the club’s interest or chances are in bringing these names to the club, they may not be as necessary as some may think. Van Gaal may yet find exactly what he’s looking for in Belfast’s answer to Frank de Boer: Jonny Evans.