It can't be a coincidence that Jonny Evans's Manchester United career has taken a nose-dive ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Ferguson was often Evans's biggest protector and cheerleader. To be fair, Ferguson could be hard on him. Here he is ripping into Evans in the middle of a Champions League match at the San Siro against AC Milan in 2010 in front of a bemused Ronaldinho (who, no doubt, felt vindicated at his decision not to join Manchester United in 2003). Here he is interfering in Jonny Evans's personal life. Here he is writing about how he had to suspend Evans after a night out with Wayne Rooney and Darron Gibson on Boxing Day in 2011.
Of course, the undercurrent in all of this is that it's clear Ferguson thought the world of Evans and had a special fondness for him. After all, you're often hardest on the ones you love. Whenever Evans would play poorly, Ferguson would take him out of the line of fire for a while and build his confidence back up. Then, when Evans started playing better, Ferguson would say things like: "Jonny Evans is the best defender in the country." If mainstays Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand faced a spell on the sidelines (something that became more common as the years passed), Ferguson would always put his faith in Evans, buttering him up with glowing statements to the media. "He's a fantastic footballer. He's quick and has two great feet," Ferguson said in 2013. "But the development in the last couple of years has been in his authority within games."
When Ferguson added Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to the defensive ranks, he admitted that a major reason why he did this was to get Evans to play better. Most importantly, when Ferguson faced a dilemma in 2008 over whether or not to keep Gerard Pique or let him go back to Barcelona, Ferguson didn't hesitate and sanctioned the sale of the talented Spaniard because, in part, he was convinced Evans was better.
Ferguson even supported Evans after an ugly incident during the 2007 Manchester United Christmas party where the defender was accused of rape. Evans was ultimately cleared of the charge and his career at Old Trafford soon blossomed.
Without his biggest supporter behind him, though, Evans has floundered. He spent most of last season in the training room with various injuries. This season, he was expected to step up and become the team's defensive leader after the departures of Vidic and Ferdinand (as well as left back Patrice Evra). Louis van Gaal even considered him for the captaincy that ultimately went to Wayne Rooney.
Instead, Evans has been about as good, defensively, as Calamity Jane. His lack of positional awareness has always been an issue (it was the reason why he got sent off early in the second half during the infamous 6-1 loss against Man City), only this year, he doesn't have an experienced world class defender like Ferdinand or Vidic covering for him. This season he's let so many players go past him that his nickname might as well be "The Human Turnstile." When the fans yell "Olé, Olé, Olé," it's no longer because opposing teams can't get the ball from United players. Instead, fans yell it now because Evans is the equivalent of a matador evading contact from a bull by letting it go past him. To compensate, he seems willing to give players space, and that cost his side dearly in a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa on December 20 when Christian Benteke scored his goal because Evans couldn't close him down fast enough.
Additionally, Evans has always shown an aversion to physical play, and teams have been taking advantage of that. Against Stoke City on New Year's Day, Evans nearly conceded a goal after he got bullied by United castoff Mame Biram Diouf and dispossessed in his own penalty box.
Meanwhile, he's become shockingly poor at clearing the ball from danger (among center-halves for United, his clearance rate is dead last). Against MK Dons earlier this season, it was a poor backpass from Evans that started United on the road to its most humiliating loss in some time. Another bad backpass against Liverpool nearly led to a Raheem Sterling goal. The stats have demonstrated that Evans has declined significantly in several other areas. According to Squawka, he has gotten worse when it comes to winning aerial duels and is committing more fouls.
Yesterday, Evans was so bad against Burnley that United fans took to Twitter to call him "a joke," "a liability," and "clueless." One user even said that he had become used to the sight of Evans appearing in frame moments after the ball hits the back of the net. ESPN was a little more diplomatic, saying Evans had "a somewhat subpar night" whose biggest impact in the game was injuring teammate Daley Blind. "[Evans's] slump in form has been so prolonged that it is difficult to see him emerging from it any time soon," ESPN noted less diplomatically. No longer does Evans look like a future United captain. Instead, he seems destined to join the likes of John O'Shea and Wes Brown at Sunderland.
Obviously, not all of this is due to Ferguson leaving. Evans always seems to get hurt during the course of the season and often misses significant chunks of time. Those injuries have surely taken a toll on him. Additionally, it's fair to wonder if Evans was really as good as he seemed, or if he looked better than he really was because he had Vidic or Ferdinand playing beside him. Playing for van Gaal hasn't helped, as Evans (along with the others) have struggled as a result of the manager constantly switching between a back-three and a back-four.
But it must be difficult for him now that he no longer has his biggest supporter standing behind him. Evans said last year that losing Ferguson was a bigger deal than anyone realized. Looking at his form since then, Jonny Evans was right on the money.