When Daley Blind made the move from Ajax to Manchester United in the summer of 2014, he was returning to club football after a successful World Cup.
Blind, playing as a left-wing back in Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system, was the player who delivered that delicious ball over the top of the Spanish defence for Robin van Persie to execute a superb diving header to bring the Dutch level at 1-1 in a game that ended with the Dutch hammering Spain 5-1. He also scored a goal in the third-place play-off victory over hosts Brazil in a game that ended 3-0 to the Oranje.
The Ajax academy graduate arrived at Manchester United as a trusted member of Van Gaal’s World Cup squad and with a reputation as a versatile player who could play as a central midfielder, defensive midfielder or a left-back.
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With a relatively good first season in English football behind him, Blind was moved into the centre of defence alongside Chris Smalling for United’s pre-season and has remained at the heart of their defence throughout the current campaign.
There had been questions surrounding Van Gaal’s decision to place Blind alongside Smalling. Rio Ferdinand had been one of those to voice concerns at the start of the season about playing the traditional midfielder at centre-back.
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Blind’s physical frame (standing at 5'9") and lack of pace had been a major question point but, as the season has progressed, Blind has truly answered his critics with some calm and measured performances.
When Romelu Lukaku stepped onto the Old Trafford pitch on Sunday, many feared that he would decide to stick with Blind which would, in turn, allow the Belgian to cause havoc.
This was not the case. Blind defended superbly against the imposing, in-form striker, winning headers, holding him up and intercepting the ball with the superb anticipation that defines his game.
Blind is not the first, or the shortest, midfielder who has been converted into a defender. Javier Mascherano, standing at just 5’8½", has been, and still is, at the heart a Barcelona defence that has been remarkably successful, dominating at both domestic and European level for many years.
Manchester United’s defensive record is bettered only by Tottenham this season and, while this is largely down to the superman qualities of David de Gea, the defensive duo of Smalling and Blind have also played their part. This has been evident in the previous two league games against Manchester City and Everton where the two centre-backs protected their goalkeeper and kept in-form strikers at bay.
There appears to be a good partnership developing between the trio of De Gea, Blind and Smalling, and one has to question whether United really need a defender to replace Blind after all.
Numerous names will be touted in gossip columns, and there is a desperate need for United to bolster the defence after the disappointing performances of Marcos Rojo and the injuries throughout the season to Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Antonio Valencia, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Phil Jones and Guillermo Varela. There is no doubt that United need strength-in-depth all over the pitch, and there must be some wise acquisitions in the summer.
Blind may find himself replaced by a more traditional, taller and quicker centre-back at the start of next season, but a return to central-midfield or left-back will still give United the benefit of his footballing ability and intelligence.
Smalling and Blind are improving game-by-game, however, and seem to have a good understanding of each other. The key question for United is: could Smalling and Blind develop into a solid and effective defensive pair?
Only time, and a summer transfer window, will tell.