While the shock, short-term signing of Jonny Evans has proven to be an astute piece of business for Manchester United amid their numerous injury woes this season, it does perhaps show where the club is at that they have had to rely on an ageing talent – who left relegated Leicester City on a free transfer over the summer – so regularly in 2023/24.
For all the positive work that the 36-year-old has done of late – notably teeing up Bruno Fernandes in style in the 1-0 win over Burnley earlier in the campaign – the recent clash with Tottenham Hotspur truly exposed his flaws.
The Northern Irishman appeared to show his age as Rodrigo Bentancur skipped past him inside the penalty area just 50 seconds after the restart, with the one-time Premier League winner subsequently being withdrawn midway through the second half in favour of the returning Lisandro Martinez.
With the latter man now available for selection once again after a lengthy injury layoff, the hope will be that Evans can revert to being merely a last-resort, backup option over the coming months, with a Martinez and Raphael Varane partnership likely to be favoured
That being said, in the long-term a more reliable partner to the Argentine will need to be found, with Varane out of contract this summer, while the deals of both Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are up in 2025, ensuring at least one new addition will be needed in the near future.
Amid that search to freshen up an ageing defensive unit, the recent indication has been that Erik ten Hag could look to reunite with one of his former assets.
Man Utd’s centre-back search
A report from the Standard earlier this week revealed that Sir Jim Ratcliffe and co are looking at the likes of Jarrad Branthwaite and Jean-Clair Todibo as possible centre-back options this summer, albeit with multiple Premier League clubs also looking at the in-demand pair.
One notable name that has also been mentioned this week as a potential summer target for the Red Devils is Ten Hag’s former Ajax skipper, Matthijs de Ligt, with Sky Germany reporter Florian Plettenberg stating that the Dutchman is “on the list” for the club, ahead of next season.
The transfer insider revealed that while the Bayern Munich man is unlikely to depart this month, he is “not 100% satisfied” with his current role under Thomas Tuchel, having slipped behind the likes of Dayot Upamecano and Kim Min-jae in the defensive pecking order.
That has ensured that the 24-year-old – who is valued at €50m (£43m) according to CIES Football Observatory – could become a “hot topic” for United over the coming months, with a move to the Theatre of Dreams potentially finally on the cards for a player who was notably linked with the switch back in 2019.
If a belated deal is to come to fruition, United could acquire another Dutch centre-back legend, in the mould of a certain Jaap Stam.
How Matthijs de Ligt compares to Jaap Stam
Despite spending just three years in Manchester, Stam swiftly cemented himself as a true cult hero at the club following his arrival from his native Holland back in 1998, having played his part in the remarkable treble success in his debut season.
Much like De Ligt, who burst onto the scene at Ajax under Ten Hag, it was in the Eredivisie where the now-retired titan first caught the attention amid his displays for PSV Eindhoven, in particular, with Sir Alex Ferguson forking out a reported fee of around £18m in order to get his man.
Although Stam’s time in England was relatively brief, he formed part of a side that claimed three successive league titles, with ex-teammate Gary Neville only recently describing him as “one of the best centre-backs that’s ever played in the Premier League”.
What made the 6 foot 3 powerhouse so impressive was his devastating mixture of physical prowess and an innate ability to read the game, with Nicky Butt hailing him as “an awesome defender with great recovery pace, strength and physique.”
Also dubbed “as quick as a Ferrari” by Teddy Sheringham, the Kampen-born brute was a true machine during his pomp at United, making his subsequent exit all the more head-scratching in the summer of 2001.
Trying to live up to such heroics would be a tall order for De Ligt, although the former Juventus man – who is also a towering presence at 6 foot 2 – seemingly has the tools to do so, having even been described by Stam himself as someone who would “fit very well at United“:
“He’s got composure on the ball, he’s aggressive tactically, he sees the game, he reads the game well and he’s got that driving force for himself as well in what you need to achieve and where you want to go to.”
Those traits no doubt match up to the description of Stam’s key strengths as a defender, with De Ligt possessing that combination of pace, power and quality in possession – thus ensuring he can be the next Dutch star at Old Trafford.
De Ligt’s record under Ten Hag
If Ten Hag is to stay put at United this summer, the 53-year-old would likely jump at the chance to reunite with his former captain, with a teenage De Ligt having led the Amsterdam outfit to the semi-finals of the Champions League during the 2018/19 campaign.
Such heroics under Ten Hag’s watch – for whom the defender scored eight goals in 70 games – caught the attention of Juve that following summer, while the former wonderkid was then snapped up by Bayern back in 2022.
De Ligt’s 2018/19 Eredivisie season by numbers
33 games (33 starts)
90% pass accuracy rate
15 clean sheets
2.1 tackles & interceptions per game
63% total duels won
65% aerial duels won
7.23 avg. match rating
Although the £265k-per-week man’s career has not blossomed quite as expected amid his early showings as a leader at the Johan Cruyff Arena, there is still reason to be excited about his sky-high potential, having even been compared to another of his standout compatriots in the form of Virgil van Dijk, as per international colleague, Nathan Ake:
“He’s quick, strong for his age, very good in the air and on the ball he is very good. He scores so many from set-pieces so he’s got a lot of the same attributes as Van Dijk.”
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That likeness again bodes well for the impact that De Ligt can make in the Premier League, with all the signs pointing to a player that United should take a gamble on this summer.