The 2006-2007 season saw Manchester United regain the Premier League title for the first time in four years. It also marked Gary Neville’s most recent appearance in the PFA team of the year. Near the end of the campaign Neville suffered a long-term injury, which kept him out of consistent first team action for nearly 18 months.
Since then United has yet to settle on a starting right back, with four men competing for the spot – a problem Sir Alex Ferguson is yet to resolve.
During the following Premier and Champions League double winning season Wes Brown took a hold of the position, with 52 appearances in all competitions. Throughout the season the Longsight-born defender was solid and even popped up with some major contributions going forward in the form of a goal against Liverpool and an assist in the Champions League final against Chelsea.
After getting off to a decent start in the 2008-2009 Brown was hit by another major injury, just as Neville returned from his layoff, allowing teenager Rafael Da Silva to make the first team. Despite the return of United’s captain and the Brazilian phenomenon’s rise to prominence it was in fact John O’Shea who laid claim to the slot, starting most of United’s big games in the position that season.
Last season saw a plethora of injuries to the United backline and everyone from Ritchie De Laet to Darren Fletcher got a chance in the right back role. Now as the Red Devils kick off a new campaign the right back question is still unresolved, with few clues about who will start against Newcastle United on August 16th.
Many supporters are campaigning for youth, with Rafael promoted as the man most likely to make the role his own. Sir Alex has shown lots of confidence in Rafael in the past, starting the 20-year-old in big games, most notably the second leg against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League quarter final. Rafael was infamously sent off that night, an event that led to the Germans winning the tie.
But Rafael’s promise showed in how well the player performed in direct competition against Franc Ribéry before the red card, getting forward regularly and keeping the lively French midfielder quiet for the most part.
The criticism of Rafael is his defensive naïvety. The Brazilian sometimes gets caught too high up the pitch and is forced into making poor decisions like the one against Munich and earlier in the season when he conceded a penalty against Manchester City. But Rafael has improved in the tackle over the past year and if there is still a major question mark defensively then the youngster is undoubtedly United’s best right back moving forward.
O’Shea represents the cautious option, with little pace and a tendency towards the lethargic in possession. Defensively Ferguson will have very few concerns though. The Irishman proved himself in the position throughout the 08-09 season and despite a slow start during the early part of his United career, O’Shea has become a fans’ favourite as a result of his work ethic and acceptance to play any role required.
Brown, however, showed himself a liability at centre back last season, and when he did get a chance at right back the brilliance demonstrated in United’s double winning season had disappeared. Brown is another player who Ferguson is delighted to have in the squad because of his versatility. It will still be a surprise to see the 30-year-old start at right back considering it has been more than two years since the role was his.
Then there is club captain Neville, who is likely playing in his last season with United. His playing time will probably reflect that fact. Neville is a good influence on the younger players at the club but the frequency with which the 35-year-old is skinned by mediocre left wingers is worrying. The ultimate pro may just have to accept a bit part role with United this coming season.
In the end the right back position will probably be fought over by O’Shea and Rafael, barring any injuries. While the romantic choice is the Brazilian, the most likely outcome is that he will share the role with O’Shea based on the opponent, with Neville providing cover against weaker opposition.