The back line might not get the Golden Boots or have their names on the back of kids’ shirts, but to the purist they are the linchpins of the team, denying the opposition goals and possession in the attacking third.
United’s roll call of defenders in the Premier League looks like a puzzle designed to outfox forwards. Go back to the Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce era, when Fergie’s faith in the duo was repaid in 1991/92 with United’s first league championship in 26 years, conceding just 31 goals in a season that was then 42 games long. The long-term effects of that season are there for all to see.
Denis Irwin was a solid defender with 368 appearances in the United shirt between 1990 and 2002. Although a traditional full-back, he was also capable of scoring goals, his unflappable manner making him one of the club’s preferred penalty takers.
Jaap Stam – about as imposing a figure as your average forward was ever likely to face – graced the defence alongside Gary Neville from 1998 to 2001 – Gary would go on to captain United on and off for five years.
The Neville era was in full swing when Rio Ferdinand came to Old Trafford in 2002. If that was a brick wall of a defence to start with, the arrival of Nemanja Vidic in 2006 put in place what is arguably the best defensive partnership in United’s history. In 2006/07, United conceded just 27 league goals with Vidic and Ferdinand regulars at the back.
In modern times the stars of the back line include Bailly, Jones, Smalling, Blind and Darmian. Undeniably blessed with grit and talent, time will tell whether they join the United defensive hall of fame. Perhaps they’re already in yours.