Northern Irishman has thrived at West Bromwich Albion but flattered to deceive at Old Trafford
Manchester City's bid for Jonny Evans makes sense, but what version of the former United defender will they get?
It has reached the stage in the transfer window when it is ever harder to present players who have suddenly emerged as targets as first choices. In the case of Jonny Evans and Manchester City, there should be no pretence; not on the side of a club who wanted Leonardo Bonucci and eyed Virgil van Dijk, and not from a former Manchester United player.
None of that necessarily makes the Northern Irishman the wrong choice, but should he end up at the Etihad Stadium, it will represent a marriage of convenience. It will spare Evans the journey on busy motorways to the Midlands – he used to share lifts from Cheshire with Darren Fletcher before the Scot’s summer switch to Stoke City – and it will give City another homegrown player, helping a squad top-heavy with imports fill a quota.
Evans is far more assured in possession than Eliaquim Mangala, their current back-up at centre-back, and two-footed enough to operate on the left of a back three, not the ideal position of any of Pep Guardiola’s current defenders. The Catalan’s switch to a back three has made it more important he has four quality central defenders and Evans is the sort of low-maintenance character who should react appropriately if he is omitted.
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If it seems a bid that has come out of the blue, certainly there has been a recognition that his abilities suit clubs other than West Bromwich Albion. There were hints of interest from Arsenal last summer. There was an offer from Leicester City earlier this. There has been the occasional sight of Evans in midfield, as though Tony Pulis felt such a gifted passer was wasted at the back. Over two seasons at The Hawthorns, Evans has been consistently one of the finest defenders outside the top six: the sort of player, like Van Dijk, that bigger clubs are bound to target.
Except that he has already been at one of those elite employers. Evans made 198 appearances over eight years at Old Trafford, without cementing a place. He was neither success nor failure, but somewhere in between. Much as Alex Ferguson used to insist he was a future United centre-half, the future never really arrived. Evans never proved himself the successor to Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand as the cornerstone of the defence.
Plenty of revisionist thinking has surrounded Louis van Gaal’s decision to sell him, and United certainly undervalued Evans at £8 million (Dh38m), but it may have been the graver decision to discard the untried Michael Keane. Evans’ United career was effectively ended when he picked up a six-match ban for spitting at Newcastle United’s Papiss Cisse and, while he is classier than Chris Smalling, the limited Englishman was in form at the time.
Evans looked silky at times, substandard at others. He was a common denominator in many of the defensive disasters of Ferguson’s final few years – the 2010 defeat to League One Leeds United, the 4-0 loss at West Ham United, the League Cup embarrassment against Crystal Palace, the Europa League exit to Athletic Bilbao, the autumn of 2012 when they were strangers to clean sheets – and indeed was sent off in City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford, when he was utterly unable to handle Mario Balotelli. Too often it seemed he lacked the presence that Vidic exuded.
Evans was not alone in failing to progress in the mess of the post-Ferguson era, amid the confused decision-making of first David Moyes and then Van Gaal, just as it is true that he was younger then and seems less error prone now.
He has appeared more mature at West Brom, inheriting the captaincy from Fletcher, and was terrific at Euro 2016 for Northern Ireland. But it is also a case that some players flourish outside the spotlight – Evans’ Albion teammate, and former United goalkeeper, Ben Foster is a case in point – and he may be another.
For City, though, it is a question which player they will get: the one who was outstanding at Albion or who flattered to deceive at United?