Jonny Evans – Man Utd’s worryingly important penalty-box defender

Jonny Evans has played 1,270 minutes for Manchester United this season — far more than anyone initially expected.

Few expected United’s fifth-choice centre-back to be so important, yet Evans has been on the pitch for 43 per cent of the club’s Premier League minutes.

It’s quite the turnaround for someone who initially re-signed with former club United on a short-term deal last summer at age 35 in an effort to maintain fitness after leaving Leicester City following a) their relegation to the Championship and b) the expiration of his contract.

When he first arrived back at the club he originally joined as a nine-year-old and then left for West Bromwich Albion in summer 2015, he was paid minimum wage, as a formality, as he wasn’t expected to hang around.

Yet if it weren’t for the hamstring strain in November that led to him missing most of one match and all of the next four, Evans would surely have featured even more than he has. For better or worse, he is one of the constants in a United team struggling for control and consistency.

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The 104-cap Northern Ireland international was a solid presence in Saturday’s 2-0 home win against Everton.

Manager Erik ten Hag continued with the 4-2-4(ish) formation he employed in the derby loss to Manchester City last week and his team responded by continuing with their misshapen, frustrating and careless behaviour in possession. Casemiro alone lost the ball on six occasions in the opening 20 minutes, before teenager Kobbie Mainoo offered the 32-year-old 75-cap Brazil international and five-time Champions League winner some calming words at a goal kick.

In a game where both teams were comfortable playing on the counter-attack, it fell to the individual quality of players in both penalty areas to earn a much-needed United victory.

The positive reading from United fans is to applaud their team’s ability to win after a spate of injuries left them without a specialised left-back or centre-forward yesterday. The less positive reading asks why an Everton team 16th in the table came to Old Trafford and managed 23 shots at goal.

Two penalties – both won by Alejandro Garnacho and converted by Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford respectively – put the game largely out of sight before half-time, but Ten Hag’s side kept a clean sheet because they were better at defending inside their penalty area. Key to that was Evans, who made four clearances and blocked four shots in a performance best described as “old-school.”

The majority of his defensive actions came inside the United penalty area.

Jonny Evans player defensive actions vs Everton 9324

He offered what he could during build-up phases, but rarely touched the ball on Everton’s side of the halfway line.

Evans is a defender whose primary job is to defend. He has his limitations, but can do a job when asked to work against the ball in small spaces.

Jonny Evans all touches vs Everton 9324

Such was his quality on the day, Evans was applauded off by the crowd when he was replaced in the 89th minute with Willy Kambwala.

This was not meant to happen. Ten Hag ideally wanted United’s class of 2023-24 to be defined by their high-pressing and aggressive counter-pressing.

The squad for this season was built with the idea of defending as a collective unit of 11 players, winning the ball high up the field to maintain pressure in the opposition half. Balls that did manage to cross the halfway line were supposed to be mopped up by one of the club’s two World Cup-winning centre-backs, Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez.

Injuries, oddities and other tactical dysfunction have scuppered those plans.

Varane was good against Everton, but with Martinez still missing, United defended deep in and around their own box in a dogged manner that can be ugly to the eye. It often falls to Evans to handle the majority of his team’s defending. On Saturday, he responded well.

“Very good,” Ten Hag said of Evans’ performance. “We are so pleased that we signed a fifth centre-back; normally you will say, ‘Why five?’, but I’m so happy there is. You see his performance all across the season — such an important player for this squad.”

It is not all pleasant reading.

Those 23 Everton shots brought them an expected goals figure of 1.48 (more than United’s, once you remove the two penalties, of 0.98).

United are grateful for Evans’ last-ditch defending because they remain porous in midfield and lacklustre when pressing up front. They have now conceded 467 shots in the Premier League this season, an average of 16.7 per game. Only second-bottom, three-win Sheffield United (501) have conceded more.

Liverpool (twice, in the FA Cup quarter-finals a week today and then the league) and Newcastle United are their next two visitors, and will surely ask more difficult questions of Ten Hag’s defence than Everton were able to.

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Evans was a key presence as United defended (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

It is never a great sign when a team’s losses are more memorable than their wins, but at least United found a way to take all three points against Everton. They remain in sixth place, now with a goal difference of zero and with slim hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

Ten Hag’s team will need to find a way to improve between now and their final match away against Brighton on May 19 to climb into the top four, or even five.

United need to control what they can control and try their best to influence the remaining chaos of the season in their favour. That is several steps removed from what was envisioned before a ball was kicked in 2023-24, but this side are trying their best to muddle through.

And Evans is giving them a good chance of doing just that.

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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