Since joining the Red Devils at the start of the season, Mourinho has focussed on building a stout defence. The club conceded just twenty-nine goals in the 16/17 season, keeping fourteen clean sheets along the way. With the versatile Antonio Valencia commanding the right-hand side of the field and Matteo Darmian coming to terms with the left, the missing piece of Mourinho’s puzzle lies in the centre of his defensive line. After recurring injuries to Phil Jones, and Daley Blind looking increasingly likely to replace Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield, it may be time for Mourinho to delve into the transfer market for a no-nonsense centre back to stand alongside Eric Bailly at the heart of the United defence.
There’s no shortage of capable defenders in world football today, particularly for a club of United’s stature, though personality and drive are two attributes which Mourinho maintains are key to success. One player who looks to have met Mourinho’s incredibly high standards is Lazio and Dutch International centre Bback, Stefan de Vrij. At just 25-years-old, the best is most certainly yet to come from De Vrij after he missed the majority of the past two seasons with a knee operation and a metatarsal fracture.
Born on the 5th February 1992 to a footballing family, Stefan was one of three brothers who played the sport from a young age. Though his two brothers took different career paths, Stefan stayed true to the sport he loved and aspired to one day play football in the Eredivisie. His youth career began at local side VV Spirit, though his commanding performances quickly caught the attention of his coaches who suggested he attend a Feyenoord trial day. De Vrij, along with his father – who was denied a chance to play for Feyenoord at 8 because his parents forbade him from playing football on a Sunday – duly attended, and Stefan was asked to join the Rotterdam Giants.
At Feyenoord, De Vrij developed into an intelligent centre back. Despite criticism from coaches at u14 level for being “too nice” and subsequently spending the majority of the season as a backup alongside Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan worked on his game and thrived under the pressure of failure. Just two years later, he, along with Bruno and a number of other teammates, skipped the u16 team and were thrown straight into the u17 side to begin their professional development. His debut for the first team came against FC Groningen in 2009 and De Vrij went on to make twenty-one appearances thereafter, seventeen of which were in the Eredivisie. He was just 17-years-old.
During a difficult time for Feyenoord – a year in which they lost 10-0 to ultimate rivals Ajax – De Vrij realised his boyhood dream as he was given the captaincy at just 22-years-old, replacing the mighty Ron Vlaar. Though it was short lived, (Koeman stripped him of the captaincy because he failed to tell the club he was partaking in extracurricular training to improve his strength) Stefan showed that he was not afraid to bend the rules in favour of his own development; he was simply looking to make himself a better defender. A rise through the ranks at international level has seen De Vrij represent his country at senior level a total of twenty-five times. After his debut at twenty-two, De Vrij was one of many young players entrusted by Van Gaal in the coming years, and he was Holland’s standout player in the 2014 World Cup, alongside the tricky Arjen Robben.
A slight knee injury he picked up after joining Lazio was irritated in an international game and ended in an operation which saw him sidelined for 297 days, missing the entirety of his second season at the club. More recently, a fractured metatarsal kept him out for 40 days over the Christmas period, though the Dutchman has managed to maintain a clean bill of health otherwise; good news for a frail United back line.
Before missing the majority of the 15/16 season with the aforementioned knee operation, De Vrij had revitalised a struggling Lazio defence who had conceded a sixth-worst 54 goals in Serie A just one season before, despite the experienced Stefan Radu and Lorik Cana at the back. In his first twenty-four appearances for the club, De Vrij and his new defensive partners had managed to keep ten clean sheets. With his return for the 16/17 season, the club comfortably qualified for a Europa League place and racked up an impressive five-game winning streak in which they conceded just two goals and claiming three clean sheets, one against rivals Roma.
As De Vrij has matured into a world-class centre back, he has drawn comparisons to Nemanja Vidic for his combative, hard faced approach to defending. Despite his relatively young age, his leadership on and off the field shows his maturity and ability to turn up for big games. After all, he’d made 153 appearances for Feyenoord by the time he’d left the club at the age of twenty-two.
Though naturally a centre back, Stefan is capable of filling in at Right Back if necessary. He likes to work the ball out from the back, through intricate passing or marauding runs through the centre. This makes him a perfect fit for the Premier League as more teams look to press high up the pitch and try and force defensive errors. Unlike many of his peers, he understands when to play out from the back and when not to, often looking for a diagonal ball out wide if there is too much pressure in the centre.
At 6’2, De Vrij’s tall frame gives him an advantage in challenging aerial duels and allows him to defend crosses from wide areas with relative ease. His positioning is excellent, always seeming to be in the right place at just the right time in and around the area. His positioning only aids his tackling ability which is superb in one-on-one situations due to his no-nonsense style.
Mourinho voiced his interest in the Dutch defender earlier in the season, though United were unsuccessful in signing de Vrij in the January transfer window. Since then, he has opted to turn down a renewed contract at Lazio which has one year remaining, meaning the club may look to cash in on the centre back while they can in the summer.
After honing his craft in a notoriously defensive-minded league, Stefan de Vrij looks more than capable of making a seamless transition into the Premier League. His physicality and determination are key factors which will allow him to take centre stage at United, and I believe he has the capability to become a leading Premier League defender by providing Mourinho with a base that he can mould his defence around.