Jonny Evans knows how to play ball
For centre-halves, set-piece opportunities being an exception, the halfway-line is something of an “Iron Curtain”; the boundary which separates two opposites. It was the Shelbyville to their Springfield. You stay there, we stay here. And so there’s a small thrill in seeing a confident, unshackled centre-back running through his own half into the other, finding a gap and sensing an opportunity. Phil Jones won many admirers by doing precisely this earlier on in the season, bulldozing his way into Shelbyville with ease. And now Jonny Evans has followed his lead; with his own take. His calmness on the ball, a recurring feature of his play which pretty much lays the foundation of his all-round game, sees him glide out of defence with measured pace to set up a charge at the opposition and, once he finds a man, he refuses to run back into his position until the attack has been quelled; adding another option going forward in the process. “Jonny’s one of the best in our defence at coming out with the ball,” says Sir Alex Ferguson. “He’s a terrific user of the ball and he’s quick. I’ve been pleased with him.”
Has this been effective? Has it led to any goals? It doesn’t matter. Because it’s certain to do soon if it hasn’t already; and it’s important to recognise how important even one ultimately unsuccessful attack is — very important. It’s all about momentum, you see. And exerting pressure. This isn’t half the point, though. It doesn’t matter because regardless of which centre-back is doing it, it is almost always liberating, even it is short-lived. Football is about the small moments, too. Anyway, there’s a reason for going slightly off tangent, for the soppy words. It’s Jonny Evans we’re talking about, Jonny Evans!
He’s always been maligned — and, whether unfairly or not, there was a time not long ago where you could easily identify the problem(s). And that problem may still exist — but recent showings hint at a more mature player to the one who consistently faltered last season, who seemed unable to shake off his reputation to get easily ‘bullied’, especially as he was, indeed, ‘bullied’ frequently. Now, if there is a problem, he’s doing a good job hiding it.
Promisingly, his efforts are gradually gaining recognition; the unforgettable 6-1 defeat to Manchester City last Autumn the only blemish in what is the season where Evans is by far Manchester United’s most improved player. Some may still question keeping Evans at Gerard Piqué’s expense; as Alistair Walker argues, Piqué has “a legitimate claim to being the best central defender in the world,” — and he has Evans partly to thank for that. Truth is, had he stayed at Old Trafford, Piqué would always remain below Evans for whatever reason and surely, then, never had emerged as the player he now is.
But Piqué is the past. This is the present: and United’s 5-0 win over Wolves last Sunday could very much be said to be the most important of the Irishman’s career so far.
Evans’ first goal for the club was no doubt a proud moment for him, but there is a greater significance to it than that and the fact that his goal, the opener, set the tone for a thumping. It was also important for the player’s image itself. It was a wonderful way to cap a solid few months – they say (well, some do) that goals for defenders is only a bonus, and while that would be true for someone like Nemanja Vidic, it does at least bring much-needed attention towards someone often less spoken about; indeed, even MoTD2 and Dion Dublin analysed Evans’ game straight after, incidentally, at one point, cooing over his tendency to run from his defensive position.
Evans has not been perfect — but screw perfection. He’s been an able deputy in Vidic’s absence and is even looking as good as experienced partner Rio Ferdinand – heck, he’s performed even better. And despite promising first halves of the season, he appears more competent as a centre-half than Chris Smalling and Jones right now (although injuries have helped neither). Yet, it’d be wrong to go all hyperbolic (too late?).
Evans has always had the talent, and the attributes, but only until now has he really shown that on a weekly basis; not long ago, United fans in their dozens panicked just at the sight of his name on the teamsheet. Some may still do now, but they’re in a minority. And boo to them, anyway. Boo! Still, it’s important to stress that we might not have seen the end of the uncertain Evans. Just as much, though, it’s also important to recognise that this might just be start of something good for Evans, and Manchester United.