Manchester United cannot consider Sunday’s clean sheet at Stamford Bridge to be any sort of progress defensively because Chelsea’s team selection – opting for Olivier Giroud over Timo Werner – benefited Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof instead of exploiting their weaknesses.
It wasn’t surprising to see Giroud start for Chelsea following his Champions League heroics against Atletico Madrid a few days earlier, yet it was odd to see Werner sat among the bench when his pace would have been a more dangerous weapon in the contest.
Both Maguire and Lindelof are decent centre-backs as individuals, but as a pairing they don’t really work. For all their various strengths, a lack of pace and general mobility has been exposed on several occasions this season, yet Giroud was never going to be the player to get at them like that.
As alluded to by Gary Neville after the disappointing West Brom draw last month, either of them could be fantastic with the right partner with a complementary skillset.
But keeping out a Chelsea side that wasn’t full of speed and movement is still no indicator that, actually, United will be alright long-term with these two together.
In theory, Eric Bailly is the perfect partner for either Maguire or Lindelof. His speed and physical energy is what each of them needs alongside them, something they don’t get from the other. Bailly has the all-important pace to play on the cover that United otherwise lack.
The much talked about problem with the Ivorian, however, is that throughout his time at Old Trafford, long-term fitness has been hard to come by and he struggles with a run of games.
It is why a new centre-back in the transfer market this coming summer is so important, one with some speed and mobility to mask existing weaknesses and complement strengths.
Raphael Varane has once more been linked with a move to Manchester as his Real Madrid future grows increasingly uncertain, with a contract due to expire in 2022. The Frenchman will only turn 28 next month, despite seemingly having been around forever, and would be a sound investment.
It could be Varane, but there are a number of players who could fit the bill, as long as they have more pace than Maguire and Lindelof. Jules Kounde is another option, and a longer-term investment at that. Pau Torres isn’t exactly a sprinter but he’s much quicker than Maguire.
Aside from 0-0 draws against other ‘big six’ sides, United have only kept four clean sheets in the Premier League this season – and one of those was in the 9-0 annihilation of Southampton when the Saints played for 88 minutes with 10 players.
That leaky defence has cost them plenty in recent weeks in particular, with a defeat to Sheffield United, and score draws against Everton and West Brom the reason that Manchester City were able to get ahead in late January and into February.
United won’t get to where they want to be without addressing it before next season.