Despite finishing fifth last season, Manchester United actually had the best defensive record in the entire Premier League, conceding just 35 goals across their 38 matches.
When Chelsea won the 2014-15 title under new United manager Jose Mourinho, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta played pretty much every game together. The quartet formed a well-organised defensive unit and provided a solid platform for the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard to fully express themselves.
United were crowned FA Cup winners in May, but the “Special One” is expected to help them mount a serious title challenge next season. So, what will be his preferred back four and defensive line-up?
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Right-back – Matteo Darmian
Ex-winger Antonio Valencia is excellent going forward but Mourinho’s desire for defensive solidity may see Matteo Darmian preferred to the Ecuadorian at right-back. Although Darmian is yet to hear from his new boss and has been linked with a move away, the 26-year-old proved during his first season at Old Trafford that he can defend very well.
The disciplined Italian can play both at right-back and full-back, and his versatility could be key for the Red Devils over the course of the upcoming campaign. Darmian set up the Graziano Pelle goal which knocked defending champions Spain out of Euro 2016, but he also missed the decisive penalty in Saturday’s shoot-out loss to Germany.
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Centre-back – Chris Smalling
On the back of another good season, Chris Smalling won United’s Players’ Player of the Year award, which shows that his teammates hold him in high regard and value his efforts. The 26-year-old is aggressive, powerful, quick, strong in the air, and is developing into a fine defender.
The England international stepped up his game massively following the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic two years ago, and he has firmly established himself as the leader of United’s defence.
Smalling is almost a certainty to be a first-team regular under Mourinho next term, and is set to be partnered by promising youngster Eric Bailly.
Centre-back – Eric Bailly
Last month Bailly became Mourinho’s first signing as Man United manager when he moved to Old Trafford from Villarreal for a fee believed to be around £30 million. With his pace, physical strength, strong tackling abilities and composure on the ball, Bailly is well suited to the Premier League, but only time will tell if he is able to successfully adapt to the nature of English football.
The 22-year-old lacks experience and has plenty of room for improvement, but should he quickly settle in to life in Manchester, he could form a dominant central defensive partnership alongside Smalling.
Left-back – Luke Shaw
Luke Shaw started every game for Manchester United last season before suffering a double leg fracture which saw him miss the remainder of the campaign as well as Euro 2016.
Prior to his horrific injury, Shaw was showing his best form in a United shirt and upon his return to full fitness the 20-year-old will undoubtedly be Mourinho’s first-choice left-back. The former Southampton star is athletic, and unlike Marcos Rojo, he has the speed and acceleration to deal with some of the Premier League’s quickest wingers.
After a disappointing season, United supporters are desperate to see Shaw back in action and the talented Englishman has the potential to become one of the world’s best full-backs over the years ahead.
What about Daley Blind?
Daley Blind felt that Louis van Gaal deserved more respect and would have been disappointed to see him sacked. Not only did his 64-year-old compatriot bring him to the club from Ajax, but they also shared a very good relationship and understanding, having worked with each other in the Dutch national team.
Blind was a regular starter in central defence for United last season, making a whopping 56 appearances and producing some outstanding displays. However, it is believed that Mourinho doesn’t feel the versatile 26-year-old has the physical attributes to succeed under him as a centre-back and could even move him on this summer.
Rojo has failed to convince since joining the club back in 2014, and Mourinho has reportedly told him he is no longer needed at United. The Argentinian also got himself sent off in his country’s recent Copa America Centenario defeat to Chile with a reckless challenge on Arturo Vidal.
Phil Jones is a very capable defender at his best, and Mourinho has assured him of his future, but after just seven starts last term the 24-year-old needs to stay injury-free and prove his fitness.
United have been linked with Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane but they also have some talented youngsters coming through. Axel Tuanzebe, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are all bright prospects, but how much playing time they receive under Mourinho remains to be seen.
What is Manchester United's best defence? Leave YOUR suggestions in the comments box below!