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Manchester United

Rojo: United’s most satisfying surprise

Following the close of the summer transfer window, few would have anticipated former Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo would establish himself as one of, if not the best, signing of Manchester United’s season.

Acquired on a five-year deal for £16 million in August, the Argentine became the club’s third recruit of the off-season period, subsequent to an impressive domestic season in Portugal – in which Sporting finished runners up, with the second best defensive record in the division – and an agonizing World Cup campaign. Rojo featured in six of his nation’s seven games in Brazil, including the final, during which they suffered a devastating extra-time defeat at the hands of eventual champions Germany. It was an impressive season for the relatively inexperienced defender – both at club and international level – and for the Old Trafford faithful, a sign of things to come.

The 24-year-old had attracted strong interest from the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton, even prior to his World Cup involvement, with an eventual move to the Premier League seeming inevitable. Clearly Ronald Koeman recognized the Argentine’s quality; a compliment in itself. As the season progresses it is becoming increasingly difficult to find fault with the Saints’ recruitment standards. The south coast outfit have experienced an inspirational league campaign, and, having conceded just 17 goals in 24 league games, they boast the best defensive record in the English top flight. Rojo was touted as an ideal addition at St Mary’s, but Louis van Gaal swooped in, undetected, to sign his man.

Recognized predominately as a central defender, but also capable of chipping in at left-back, Rojo’s versatility was undoubtedly a major factor behind the United head coach’s interest. Despite featuring most regularly as centre-back for Sporting Lisbon, a starring role on the left side of defence during the summer World Cup led many to believe Van Gaal had captured another full-back, but in hindsight, this was  clearly not the case.  The Dutchman holds a firm admiration for the former Spartak Moscow defender, undoubtedly catalyzed by his competent displays in South America. “He has ability, physical strength and a willingness to learn… that means he has a very bright future ahead of him,” he claimed upon Rojo’s arrival. “He had a very strong World Cup and has been playing in Europe for a couple of years now,” he continued.

Rojo’s was certainly the most contentious arrival of all those at Old Trafford during the summer window. The departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand had exposed a significant lack of depth in the back four, and despite his success in South America, the 24-year-old was seen by very few as a capable replacement for the veteran pair (or one of them at least). Question marks were also raised regarding the manner of his transfer. He essentially forced his way out of Sporting Lisbon, giving the Primeira Liga outfit very little option but to demand as high a fee as possible. This was viewed as a signal of the player’s negative temperament and lack of integrity by some, but evidence of his desire to fulfill his ambitions by others. Regardless, it is clear to see Rojo recognized the magnitude of such an opportunity.

At just 24 years of age, Rojo has been a regular feature of Louis van Gaal’s ever-evolving defence – commanding a back-line of three or four, depending on the Dutchman’s mood.  Of all the natural defenders on the books at Old Tafford, it is fair to argue that the Argentine – a World Cup finalist and regular Champions League participant – is the most experienced. Jonny Evans may be three years Rojo’s senior, but the Northern Irishman has never quite been able to cut it at the highest level. In effect, this makes Rojo Louis Van Gaal’s most dependable defender – a sentiment that has become embodied by the confidence in his recent performances for the club.

Despite dislocating his shoulder in November and suffering a thigh strain in December, the Argentine youngster has experienced few difficulties while settling into life at Old Trafford. Perhaps unexpectedly, his committed displays have only served to enhance his reputation with the club’s fans and in no time at all he has established himself as the Red Devil’s best central defender. He has shown excellent form, throughout a Premier League campaign that has not been void of turbulence.

Assured; composed; ruthless: he has cut an impressive figure. His physical presence and tough mentality has seen him assume centre stage in any of his side’s success. It was evident after just a few games that he had the mentality and technical ability needed to star for the three-time European champions.  Comfortable on the ball and un-phased by the demands of possession-based football, the Argentine has looked a natural fit in terms of the way Van Gaal wants his United side to play. He has also impressed in a defensive sense, averaging 2.77  tackles, 3.15 interceptions and 2.62 successful aerial duels per game this season. Ultimately, he has ensured United keep tight at the back, while displaying impressive early signs of leadership. The support he has provided for academy graduate Paddy McNair, particularly on his debut, has been second-to-none.

Rojo was United’s best defender by a long stretch in the game against West Ham at Upton Park; a match in which the Red Devils stumbled to a 1-1 draw, courtesy of Daley Blind’s last minute equaliser. The visitors looked all at sea for large spells, with Rojo proving the only differential  between defensive conformity and an easy route to goal. Against the team who have scored more headed goals than any other this season, the Argentine put up an exceptional fight. It took a fabulous strike from Cheikhou Kouyate to break the deadlock, while Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia rarely threatened David de Gea.

Of course, there were moments of hot-headedness, in which his decision making could have proved costly – an impulsive first-half foul/ karate kick on the halfway line sticks firm in the memory – but still a youngster, he will naturally be susceptible to the occasional error. Yes, he does possess a tendency to make rash decisions, but it won’t be long before he erases these from his game. After all, his predecessors didn’t start out perfect.

It is perhaps to early in Rojo’s career to make comparisons with Nemanja Vidic, but he certainly looks capable of emulating the Serbian’s success at Old Trafford. He displays definite physical presence and an air of calmness when in possession, supplemented by a clear passion and desire to achieve success in the red shirt of the club. His celebrations alone express infatuation he has with Manchester United – just seven months into his stay.

Unlike many of the club’s summer arrivals, Marcos Rojo has made the transition to English football with maximum efficiency. After an impressive start, Angel Di Maria suffered an injury setback prior to Christmas. His form hasn’t been the same since. The iconic Radamel Falcao has failed to hit the ground running, following a series of underwhelming displays, and with his weekly wage burning a significant hole in the club’s coffers, his future as a Manchester United player looks increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw has hardly lived up to his price-tag, although he boasts the advantage of having copious amounts of time on his side.

Formerly of Ajax and Athletic Bilbao, respectively, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera remain the Argentine’s only real competition for the highly-coveted ‘Signing of the Season’ accolade. However, the duo have ultimately fallen victims to a lack of playing time; a result of vigorous squad rotation on the part of Louis van Gaal.

Based on a series of impressive performances and natural deduction, it is fair to conclude that Marcos Rojo has been the club’s most impressive arrival under the Dutchman’s regime; a significant achievement for a player who, unlike most last summer, practically entered the club through the back door.

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