Phil Jones and Chris Smalling may be the future but with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand gone this summer Manchester United need a world class replacement and Ezequiel Garay is the man.
If you ever wondered why his name has been mentioned as a transfer target for United so many times in the last year you only had to watch the Benfica v Tottenham match to see exactly why.
This match, and his own performance, summed up not only why United must buy him this summer, but also why he could be fundamental to rebuilding the club's success.
So why do United need another centre-back?
There will be those who point to the resources United already have, even after the likely loss of their best centre-back pairing in the Premier League era.
Phil Jones put in a towering, fearless display against Olympiakos on Wednesday which marks him out as the next giant in United's defence and a possible future captain.
Chris Smalling has, unfairly, too often had a bad press this season. He has started more times at right back (14) than in central defence (12). Right back is not his natural position but United do not have a proper deputy (until they give Varela, Vermijl or Janko a chance).
Nobody asks Jonny Evans to play left back, despite his left foot. He has had his share of injuries but has managed twice as many starts in central defence as Smalling. And yet for England against Denmark the Jones/Smalling combination looked very much at ease.
So why aren't those three (together with Michael Keane and Tom Thorpe) sufficient for the future? There are several reasons but a few will suffice:
Injuries are the biggest factor. Out of 43 games United have only kept the same central combination in successive matches 13 times. Six of those were Ferdinand and Vidic. Of the eight different pairings tried they were also the most frequent at only ten times.
It is true that David Moyes has been trying out all the players to work out his best team, who he wants to keep and who to let go, as well as trying to find a winning combination. But nevertheless the future at centre-back is still unclear and that means an opportunity to sign another player is also a need. This is the biggest single thing United will lose if Vidic and Ferdinand move on together is experience. There was no better illustration than Wednesday night. The team that started the match had almost 600 European appearances between them, just for United.
Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra may all be gone this summer and they alone have played for the club in Europe 215 times. On the other hand, Jones, Smalling and Evans account for only 62 European starts. Garay on his own has 41.
What does he bring to the table?
Jonny Evans is the most experienced of the centre-backs that United will be left with this summer. He has played 'international' football both for his club and country since he was 18. He has been lauded in the past by Sir Alex Ferguson but, despite having a couple of excellent seasons, has not yet quite convinced.
Maybe it was the dreadful gaffes against Manchester City in the 6-1 drubbing or maybe it has been his recent injury record but if he is going to be United's most experienced centre-back after Vidic and Ferdinand then they need more than that.
Which is just one reason why Garay is the perfect signing. He can step straight into the first team and do a commanding job just as Vidic could. He has 18 caps for Argentina and, together with Luisao, has forged a very impressive partnership for Benfica. So if he comes you may well be reading the team-sheet next season as Garay plus any one of Evans, Jones and Smalling. That's how good he is.
And in many ways he can replace both Vidic and Ferdinand. How? Well, he is both a very solid, reliable and fearless defender like Vidic; but he is also a footballer, like Ferdinand. And he scores goals: 11 in 114 outings for Benfica and his career record is 29 in 247 games. He scored against Spurs on Wednesday and should have had one in the previous leg but for a stunning save by Hugo Lloris.
And the best part? He could be bought for £10million or less. He has already turned down a move to Zenit St Petersburg in January, so it is to be hoped he is waiting for United.
Just one match is enough to convince anyone
The evidence as to why he should be an important part of United's future was amply summed up in just one performance on Wednesday against Spurs.
OK so Benfica conceded two goals, but neither came from Garay's side of the pitch.
He won every single aerial duel and almost all the tackles he attempted. His distribution was virtually faultless and he hit one sublime 50 yard cross-field pass to start yet another attack.
If there is one criticism that could be levelled at Vidic and Ferdinand it is that they do not, in the main, start attacks. They seem more content to give the ball to Evra, Rafael or Carrick, or to a 'water-carrier' like Tom Cleverley.
But when you look at how much more dangerous United are when Rafael drives all the way to the opposition penalty box, or when Jones marauds his way through the middle you are seeing just one of the changes United will have to make next season. It seems a lifetime ago that the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, or even Bobby Moore, brought the ball out of central defence. That is the type of footballer that Ferdinand used to be until he lost his legs.
Garay is the complete modern centre-back, even capable of playing in a three as Benfica did at times on Wednesday. He was calm, composed and unflustered throughout the match. Apart from his distribution, his positioning was superb and his tactical awareness. And he capped the whole thing off with a towering headed goal that United should score more of.
Manchester United central defence is an area that has seen more than its fair share of injuries over the last season. Garay has played an average of 38 times for Benfica in his three seasons (the Portuguese League is 30 matches).
This season only his fellow centre-back Luisao has more outings (33 against Garay's 31).
And only two players have scored more than his seven goals in all competitions.
So, in short, you can talk about Eliaquim Mangala (who might cost £40 million), but United could do much worse than signing Garay.
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