The unrest in the French camp at the 2010 World Cup – and their subsequent embarrassing group stage exit – is a distant memory now. Euro 2012 brought new tournament memories and all eyes are gradually turning to the festival of football ahead in Brazil in 2014. But one member of that France team has never fully bounced back from the events in South Africa.
Between 2008 and 2010, Patrice Evra was rightly a frontrunner in conversations about the world’s top left back. He played his part in Manchester United’s back-to-back Premier League titles in 2007 and 2008 as well as the run to Champions League glory in Moscow in 2008, during which he outdueled Lionel Messi in the semi-final, and a return to the final a year later in Rome.
His combination of anticipation and pace made him not only a top class defender, but also a dynamic threat at the other end of the pitch as he exploited right wingers’ unwillingness to track his overlapping runs. As Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson recently said, the Frenchman has been “an absolute soldier” up and down the left flank and has clocked a staggering number of minutes since his arrival at Old Trafford in 2006.
But Evra’s performances have gone steadily downhill over the past two seasons, in line with Manchester United’s general defensive efforts, raising questions around the impact of the media frenzy that surrounded the France players’ strike back in 2010 in protest at striker Nicolas Anelka being sent home. As captain, Evra understandably found himself thrust into the role of team spokesperson and took a hefty chunk of the criticism after France’s exit. And there was an apparent carryover into his Manchester United performances, with numerous instances of sloppy defending and a lack of urgency.
Now 32, the heavy workload is seemingly catching up with the left back. It has reached the point that many teams seem to have identified him as a weak link. Tottenham Hotspur’s fearless victory at Old Trafford recently had its foundations in the belief that the Red Devils were terrified of players with pace running at them – and winger Aaron Lennon wasted no time in speeding past Evra for one good first half chance.
In the Champions League, CFR Cluj’s goal against Manchester United stemmed from an Evra mistake. The Frenchman gambled and lost, allowing the Romanians to cross the ball from a dangerous position and take a surprise lead. “An absolute shocker”, Ferguson called it. The injury crisis in the centre of defence – with Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones on the treatment table – is not helping, but it should not deflect from the selection dilemma facing Ferguson at left back.
Once one of the first names on the teamsheet, Evra’s days could be numbered, with new signing Alexander Buttner ready for more playing time. Buttner, signed from Dutch club Vitesse and still just 23, will eventually be given the chance to stake his claim to be Manchester United’s future left back. His debut goal and overall development have been impressive, just adding to the pressure on Evra, who welcomed the competition earlier in the season but may feel otherwise now.
"Football is like a pyramid," Evra said, back in September. "It is easy to reach the top of the pyramid but to stay there is the hardest part. It is too easy for people to say that now we have bought another left-back, Patrice Evra will have to fight for his place. Patrice Evra has always fought for his place.”
For now, the Frenchman is focusing on the challenges ahead, namely a daunting trip to Newcastle in the Premier League, where the strike pairing of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse will be looking to put the Manchester United defence under yet more scrutiny as well as the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa, who will present a big test for Evra down the right wing.
"We put on the Manchester United face only in the second half against Spurs and this is not enough if we’re to win the title", said Evra. "We must make sure away at Newcastle we are back to the winning mentality we showed in the second half.”
Evra, as much as anyone, needs to back up these words with actions and raise his game over the weeks ahead. He is a tough competitor but, with Buttner waiting in the wings, the Frenchman desperately needs to return to the pre-2010 form that made him one of the world’s most coveted defenders.