There was division and consternation in the Manchester United ranks this summer when Jose Mourinho’s attempts to bring in a new centre-half fell on deaf ears.
The United manager had identified Toby Alderweireld and Harry Maguire as potential additions to the Old Trafford defensive corps, but executive vice-chair Ed Woodward and his fellow board members insisted that the Portuguese already had enough reinforcements and only a high-profile arrival such as Raphael Varane would be sanctioned.
So Mourinho instead went into the 2018-19 campaign bemoaning the hand he had been played and United have since kept only three clean sheets and conceded 16 goals in 11 fixtures, shipping 14 in eight league games compared to the two they had allowed at this stage last term.
Mourinho has chopped and changed too, starting the season with Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof as his preferred duo but then switching to Chris Smalling with Lindelof and latterly Bailly and Smalling as he looks for the right partnership. He has even used midfielders Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay in back threes.
But which of United’s five senior centre-halves – including Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo – have had the greatest effect on the Red Devils since Mourinho became the boss back in the summer of 2016?
When it comes to win percentage, Lindelof leads the way. The Swede has come out on the victorious side in 69 per cent of his 29 starts as a centre-back since arriving from Benfica in 2017. While he has been identified as a weakness at times due to the occasional clanger the 24-year-old has actually been the most successful of United’s centre-back options over the last two seasons-plus, just ahead of Bailly.
In terms of racking up clean sheets it is the Ivorian who comes out on top, helping to keep opponents scoreless in 27 of his 54 starts in the heart of the defence. The former Villarreal man was particularly prolific in that respect in the early part of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, but he has played only 18 minutes of league football this term since starting the ugly 3-2 reverse to Brighton in August, with his afternoon ending remarkably early against Newcastle last time out.
But while Bailly and Lindelof have the favourable individual records, Mourinho has started them together only three times and just twice in a flat back four. Since those two matches at the beginning of the league campaign it is Smalling who has been the constant in United’s defence. And when it comes to being part of a solid partnership, the former England stopper’s name is prevalent among those who have consistently paired up to record clean sheets under Mourinho.
So does Mourinho continue to side with Smalling as he looks for the right mix at the back? Or does he give Bailly and Lindelof the chance to develop an understanding over a longer period of time? The manager will need to show his two centre-back signings the same faith the board displayed in the summer if we are to find out whether they can be the answer to United’s current defensive woes.