I’m sure even Patrice Evra would admit that he has endured one of his toughest seasons in a United shirt. Captaining a side who were knocked out of the Champions League at the group stages, outclassed in the Europa League by Athletic Bilbao and cruelly missing out on the Premier League title on the last day on goal difference. On a personal level there was the Luis Suarez affair, the sudden loss of his brother and the ongoing conflict within the French squad.
Assertions that Evra’s best years are now behind him seem hasty judging by these stats on the Frenchman’s performances over recent seasons, but having been the only viable left back option at the club for so long, the lack of competition has perhaps seen some complacency creep into certain aspects of his game.
With Fabio continuing his Premier League education at Loftus Road under the tutelage of Mark Hughes and Leighton Baines reportedly not on the United radar, Ferguson has turned to 23-year old Dutchman Alexander Büttner to increase his left back options for both the short and the long-term. Seemingly on his way to Southampton at the beginning of the summer, Ferguson pounced to sign up the former Vitesse Arnhem player who helped the recently rejuvenated side to seventh in the Eredivisie and Europa League qualification via the playoffs.
Could the former Ajax graduate become more than just an understudy to the long-serving Frenchman this year? Running the rule over an Eredivisie match between Ajax and Vitesse from the end of last season, there are all the hallmarks to suggest that Manchester United supporters can look forward to yet another swashbuckling left back with the arrival of Büttner.
Lining up against an Ajax side fresh from retaining the Eredivisie title, Büttner played in the left full back position in a four man defence where along with right full back Michihiro Yasuda was encouraged to venture forward in the flexible 4-4-2 formation. Büttner’s main defensive responsibility came in the shape of Ajax’s right back Gregory Van Der Wiel as midfielder Ismail Aissati drifted more centrally.
Within minutes the elegant Büttner who seems to share Evra’s penchant for rolling his left foot over the ball when dribbling, galloped down the centre of the pitch and rifled a shot spectacularly wide from his weaker right foot. Clearly a player not short of confidence or belief in his ability to influence a game, Büttner’s short passes were sharp and quick while he did not shy away from the odd raking long-range pass to spread the play throughout the game.
One of the most vocal players on the pitch, Büttner gesticulated and pointed to his teammates ahead and around him to get into position and pick up free players to help keep a strong defensive shape. Still relatively younger in terms of his playing career Büttner would fit in well with the current crop of young players like Cleverely, Welbeck and Phil Jones already cementing a place in the first team and who are not daunted by the task of barking orders to more senior players in the team.
Interestingly Büttner seems to favour attacking from more central positions in contrast to Evra and most other traditional left backs and appears to give the midfielder playing ahead of him a lot of defensive responsibility so he can be more involved further up the pitch. That of course meant that he was caught too high up the pitch and was dragged out of position which was summed up by his rash challenge on Jan Vertonghen in the 78th minute. Jumping in on the Belgian centre back just outside of the box, the Ajax captain thundered in the resulting free-kick into the back of Veithuizen’s net, giving Ajax a comfortable two goal cushion. His last memorable involvement in the game came in the 87th minute as he pushed on once again from a central position interchanging passes and working in Ronaldo-esque stepovers during his marauding run before unsuccessfully appealing for a penalty as he hurdled over Ajax’s man between the sticks Jasper Cillessen.
In 90 minutes of football, the latest United recruit showed why he has been on the scouting radar and also why there’s still work to do be done with his game. His characteristics match those of a certain Gareth Bale a player previously linked with a move to Old Trafford, with the emphasis on his playing style to be involved as much in an attacking capacity as a defensive one. He dribbles at pace with great close control and has an elegant left foot to be a threat from set pieces. He is still a raw talent particularly in some of his defensive work and might have to rein in some of adventurous instincts particularly if the United wingers are not willing to share the burden of the extra defensive work. It’s clear to see why Nigel Adkins and Southampton were particularly keen to get him to the club and why Ferguson has opted to secure the services of a player who could make up for missing out on the Welshman who chose White Hart Lane over Old Trafford.