Did you know that it’s been nearly eight years since Gary Neville’s last game for Man United?
The long-serving right-back made his final run out for the club against West Brom in an infamous New Year’s Day clash in 2011, and admittedly struggled with the task of keeping up with Jerome Thomas on the flank.
Neville had only mad sporadic appearances for the side in the preceding months and like many great players, he was fighting – and losing – to stay fit in the twilight years of his career.
A month later he announced his retirement after almost 20 years as a Man United player.
Since then, the club have desperately tried to find a new right-back, with numerous different faces – from Brazilian twin Rafael through to converted winger Antonio Valencia – filling in over the years.
But this season, they might’ve finally found their man with the summer addition of Portuguese teenager Diogo Dalot.
The youngster impressed in his first competitive match for the club against Young Boys in the Champions League, with fans excited by the prospect of having both Dalot and Luke Shaw on either side of defence.
So with the future looking somewhat brighter, let’s take a grim look back at the players who’ve taken the reigns at right-back since Neville’s last stand.
John O’Shea and Wes Brown
When Neville called it a day on his career, United already had two relatively solid and experienced options at right-back already at the club in the form of Brown and O’Shea.
In fact, in the 2007–08 season, Brown had established himself as United’s first-choice right-back during Neville’s lengthy injury lay-off – even starting in the position during the Champions League final that year.
As for O’Shea, when he wasn’t being played as a back-up goalie or as an emergency striker, he adeptly filled in in the position in the absence of Neville and Brown, and even enjoyed a good run of games there during the 2008–09 season.
Along with his twin brother Fabio, Rafael was seen as one of the Premier League’s rising stars when he was signed from Brazilian club Fluminense.
Making his first start for United in 2008, he was slowly given more game-time at right-back over the next few seasons, until his time came during the 2012–13 season – when he was given the much sought-after number 2 shirt following Neville’s retirement.
So what went wrong?
The defender was undoubtedly seen as a first-team regular under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, but that all changed with the arrival of Louis Van Gaal.
Initially, the Dutchman favoured playing a 3-4-3 formation, meaning he preferred to play with three centre-backs and two wing-backs.
Valencia or Jesse Lingard were often in the attacking positions, and Rafael made just 11 appearances in his final season before joining Lyon in 2015.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones
Here’s two players we’re all still seemingly waiting on.
Both Smalling and Jones were once considered the future at the back for both club and country – and were fairly hyped up by Fergie when he signed them; he even claimed Jones “could be the club’s best ever player.”
But it’s all gone a bit wrong since then, hasn’t it?
Signed in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Fergie put an awful lot of faith in the pair quite early on following the various injuries to Neville, Brown, Ferdinand and Vidic.
Seen as centre-backs initially, they’ve each endured stints at right-back over the years but neither have managed to hold down a regular place in the position.
Jones’ best season at the club was arguably his first, where he played in a mixture of positions ranging from full-back to defensive midfield, while Smalling enjoyed a stellar spell in 2015 under Van Gaal.
But neither are rated too highly these days and aren’t really considered a starting option at full-back.
Having carted off Rafael to Lyon, Van Gaal signed highly rated Darmian in 2015 after he’d featured in the Serie A Team of the Year.
And it all look rather good for the Italian at Old Trafford – at least early on – as he was voted the club’s August 2015 player of the month.
But since then – and especially under the management of Jose Mourinho – he’s found himself often out of favour or used in the left-back position, despite being predominately right-footed.
Over the summer, he looked likely to leave for Juventus but failed to agree a deal with the Turin club.
Slowly but surely, he’s heading for the exit doors.
In sheer desperation, both Van Gaal and Mourinho have been forced to convert these two long-established wingers into full-backs to combat the club’s problems in that area.
Valencia first played as a wing-back under the Dutchman in 2014, and while he’s impressed there at times, it’s fair to say he isn’t the long-term heir the club are looking for in the position.
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