In many ways, Jonny Evans epitomized Manchester United’s troubles in the summer transfer window.
Hamstrung by a variety of factors, including Financial Fair Play, an uncertain ownership situation and poor scouting and recruitment, United landed a few of their priority targets but whiffed on others, forcing them to make due with more affordable options.
When it came to signing a new center half, United tried to get Kim Min-Jae, Benjamin Pavard and Jean-Clair Tobido, among others. But as a result of focusing on other positions, as well as failing to sell a reluctant-to-leave Harry Maguire, United ended up with just one new center half: Evans.
Available for free after leaving relegated Leicester City, Evans had spent most of the summer training at Carrington, waiting for some team to pick him up. Turns out, all he had to was walk down the hall to the first-team dressing room.
On Saturday, he turned back the clock and was one of the best players on the pitch as United got a much-needed 1-0 win at Burnley. Evans had a goal chalked off that very well could have stood, and provided a brilliant assist for Bruno Fernandes to score the winner. Evans also played excellent defense, organizing the back line and using his ball handling and passing to help control the game the way Erik ten Hag is always preaching about.
Wait. What year did I wake up in?
To put things bluntly, United have been bad so far this season. We’ve lost four of our first seven matches and our three wins have been nothing to write home about.
Additionally, United have had some really tough fixtures so far, including away matches against unbeaten Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich. Those matches might have tripped up even the best United teams, let alone a rebuilding team like this one.
Against Burnley on Saturday, there were still some concerns despite the positive result. Burnley cut United open a couple of times in the first half and would have led if not for poor finishing. United played without Lisandro Martinez, who could be joining the lengthy injury list alongside fellow defenders Maguire, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (although Raphael Varane came back and looked good).
As such, we could be seeing a lot more of Jonny Evans — especially if he really has found the Fountain of Youth.
If so, our midfielders could use a dose of that magic water. Our tactics seem to be somewhat incoherent right now, but it’s clear that ten Hag wants to press at a high-tempo, win possession and transition from defense to attack quickly so that opponents don’t have time to adjust.
In essence, he needs his midfielders to be fast and quick and cover lots of ground. For all their brilliance, Christian Eriksen and Casemiro lack the youth and energy to do this. Meanwhile, Scott McTominay looks as out of place in this midfield as Jadon Sancho does when he actually reports to training on time.
This was why United pursued Mason Mount in the offseason. His best attributes, namely his high-energy style, his off-the ball play and his creativity in the final third, are what ten Hag needs to make his tactics work.
This is why United wanted Sofyan Amrabat. With Mount and Fernandes pushing high up the pitch to create chances, United need a holding midfielder that can cover the ground that Casemiro can’t or play alongside him so that the Brazilian and utilize his underrated playmaking and scoring abilities. Amrabat made his debut Saturday, making a short cameo at the end, so the jury is obviously still out on him.
This is why ten Hag was so high on Kobbie Mainoo during preseason. It’s why Hannibal Mejbri got the start on Saturday and gave his manager something to think about as he did he beat Roy Kent impersonation (as in “he’s here, here’s there, he’s every fucking where”).
It’s possible that United’s problems could be alleviated by injecting some youth and industry into the midfield. After he promoted the Class of 92 to the first team, Sir Alex Ferguson was famously warned the he couldn’t win anything with kids. Maybe ten Hag has no choice but to go with kids like Hannibal, Mainoo, and Mount.
And Evans, apparently.