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Jonny Evans’ surprising return analysed

by Alex Browne

Numerous eyebrows were raised when it was announced that former defender, Jonny Evans, was returning to Manchester United to bolster the defensive department.

The Northern Irishman was a free agent after leaving Leicester City in the summer of 2023. The defender had an injury-ravaged 2022-2023 campaign and he disclosed in a recent interview with The Mirror that he was seriously contemplating retirement before he received the call from Erik ten Hag.

Many fans were astounded when they heard the news that the defender was training with the squad before pre-season to fill out the numbers for Ten Hag’s pre-season squad. The Northern Ireland international originally trained with the under-21s in their tour of America this summer and played in the defeat to Wrexham

Most fans assumed that this was some mutually beneficial agreement between the club and the player. Evans could train at a high level and get himself up to full fitness to secure a contract in the Championship and Manchester United got defensive cover and an experienced voice to help with the young players.

The arrangement was going well as the Dutch coach was full of praise for the defender and told the club’s official website that Evans is “a big personality, and I think he has big authority as well. He will help the young players especially.” It also mustn’t be forgotten that Evans enjoyed a trophy-laden time at the club between 2006-2015, playing 198 times and scoring 7 goals. He boasts a trophy cabinet many of the current United squad would kill for. Nonetheless, most assumed the short term deal would be over before the Premier League kick-off.

However, as the summer wore on, there was no defensive recruitment, Harry Maguire didn’t leave and Jonny Evans kept training at the club. The Red Devils were linked to numerous defenders such as Benjamin Pavard and Jean-Clair Todibo, however no move materialised. It always seemed such a move hinged on the sale of Maguire, which obviously never transpired.

So, the Northern Ireland international was the only centre-back recruit of the summer window. Many fans were critical and claimed it was yet another example of the Glazer family’s penny-pinching and lack of desire to back the manager in the market. Although, the defender was mainly brought in to add experience and cover. The defender himself must be taken aback by the amount of gametime he has received since rejoining the club where it all began.

The team from Old Trafford has faced a defensive crisis with all defenders in the squad missing crucial matches at some point this season due to injury or illness. Lisandro Martinez has been a long term absentee and Raphael Varane has had on and off knocks and fitness issues. Due to the scarcely believable simultaneous injuries to left-backs Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia and Sergio Reguilon, centre-back, Victor Lindelof, has been asked to deputise as a full-back.

Consequently, Evans and Maguire have been tasked to hold the defence together. This has had mixed results to say the least but also, it has probably gone better than expected. If you had told Man United fans at the start of the season that the Englishman and the Northern Irish man would be playing together regularly, it would have struck fear into their hearts. However, most would say whilst the arrangement is not perfect, it is far from the club’s most pressing issue.

Understandably for a player who is 35 years-old and in the twilight of his career, Evans suffered when asked to play against Arsenal and Manchester City. The defender on a couple of instances looked well-off the pace. Arguably Declan Rice’s crucial second goal at the Emirates Stadium was down to Evans’ slow reactions. However, to the defender’s credit, he has played quite well and been solid when asked to deal with mid-table and lower league attackers.

The Northern Irish international was outstanding against Burnley and not only in a defensive role. The Ulsterman scored a goal that was agonisingly ruled out for interference by Rasmus Houjlund and produced a Pirlo-esque wonder pass for Bruno Fernandes to volley in.

The performance was so commanding that Sky Sports pundit, and former teammate of Evans, Gary Neville, commented “I thought this would finish him” – that he felt the Burnley game would be a career ending game for the defender, where he would be brutally exposed at Premier League level. The former captain admitted his error and recognised the quality of the performance from the man from Belfast.

Nobody would sensibly argue that Evans is any more than defensive cover and if he hadn’t been a former player, he probably wouldn’t have been handed the opportunity to play at this level. However, the defender has been constantly praised throughout his career for his professionalism and leadership skills. Therefore, credit where credit is due that at the ripe old age of 35 instead of retiring, Jonny Evans remains an important player for not only United but also his country.

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