Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal rates Jonny Evans as the best central defender already on the books when he took over at Old Trafford, with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both failing to impress and now facing uncertain futures as a result.
Red Devils chiefs expected Jones and Smalling to kick on this season and become a regular feature as part of Van Gaal's preference for a 3-5-2 formation, but persistent injury problems have put paid to those plans.
The England international duo's struggle to find full fitness is particularly perplexing because United's absence from European competition this season affords them maximum recovery time between matches, a further reason why Van Gaal currently has a pretty dim view of the pair to put it mildly.
Evans stands out in Van Gaal's mind
The Guardian reports that Van Gaal has taken a shine to Evans despite the Northern Ireland international also struggling desperately with injury problems himself, featuring in just three of United's first 14 Premier League games thanks to a persistent ankle problem.
Evans provides experience and plays with an authority and composure beyond his 26 years, qualities that the Dutchman clearly thinks the more youthful and exuberant Smalling and Jones still lack.
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Spending spree puts all three under threat
Smalling has received the most public criticism of any Man United defender since Van Gaal took charge, primarily thanks to a moment of madness in the Manchester derby.
The versatile star was booked twice in quick succession and left United to battle with 10 men for the best part of an hour against Manchester City, a lapse in concentration that ultimately cost them dear.
Since that disappointment Smalling has returned to the first-team fold and looked significantly more assured, but with United handing Van Gaal a £150 million transfer budget to spend next summer any defender not performing could ultimately be moved on.
Mats Hummels and Diego Godin are just two of the names being linked with helping to shore up United's porous defence and for that reason today's report couldn't make the message clearer for Jones and Smalling in particular, it's time to full fitness and deliver on the pitch or face the threat of being shown the exit door.