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Old 13th October 2015, 12:15   #1
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Default Daley Blind the key defensive cog in Manchester United's improvement

John Brewin
Daley Blind the key defensive cog in Manchester United's improvement
ESPN Oct 2, 2015

For a young man of unassuming character, Daley Blind is an unlikely divisive figure. Two of Dutch football's icons, Marco van Basten and Johan Cruyff, have made him central to a very public philosophical war.

When Cruyff, the 1970s legend who captained the Dutch to losing the 1974 World Cup final, dissected Netherlands' troubled Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in his De Telegraf newspaper column last month, he described the Manchester United man as "the only Dutch player left with a decent, proper pass that can create a goal." That set Van Basten, legendary striker and assistant to Blind's father Danny, who is coaching the national team, on the warpath.

Retorting in magazine Voetbal International, Van Basten criticised his one-time Ajax teammate and coach. "With that comment he commits a big thinking error," he wrote of Cruyff. "If none of the other players possess this 'pass,' it indicates that such a pass is extremely difficult."

Blind became an unwitting counterpoint for Van Basten's wide-ranging criticisms of Cruyff's attempts to overhaul Ajax, and with it, Dutch football. Cruyff's response was to accuse Van Basten of being "extreme," saying: "I also don't think it's very smart to criticise a club when you're assistant manager at the national team."

About the only thing the pair can now agree on is Blind's high quality as a footballer. Dutch football may be in the doldrums, but Blind is universally accepted in his home country as a player of distinction.

United manager Louis van Gaal, another who has had philosophical disagreements with Cruyff down the years, clearly thinks highly of the 25-year-old. Blind has transitioned from willing utility man to key United cog this season; his performances have done much to cover for United's failure to make the central defensive signing that had been a priority since Van Gaal joined the club in July 2014.

Having joined in August 2014 from Ajax as a midfielder who was capable of playing at left-back, Blind is now United's first-choice centre-back. Having been tried there as an experiment during United's summer tour, he has kept his place ever since the first match of the season.

Blind is not Mats Hummels, the long-time target who chose to stay at Borussia Dortmund this summer, yet he fulfills many of the same functions that Van Gaal wanted from the German World Cup winner. Blind's wand of a left foot is capable of the same long passes that mark out Hummels as a player of imposing class, a prime example being the raking, faded pass that allowed Juan Mata to tee up Memphis Depay for United's opener against Sunderland last Saturday.

The Dutchman's use of his left foot to complement right-footed Chris Smalling fits one of Van Gaal's obsessive tics: where possible, he will always pair left and right-footers in his central defensive partnerships.

And while Smalling currently looks like English football's most improved defender -- Wednesday's neatly-taken goal against Wolfsburg another example of growing self-confidence -- he is few people's idea of a ball-playing modern libero in the style of Rio Ferdinand or say, Barcelona's Gerard Pique. Blind's breeding in Ajax's academy, where youngsters are encouraged to play multiple positions and continue the Total Football philosophy in place since Cruyff's youth, has lent him admirable comfort in possession. His poise and distribution allow Smalling to concentrate on pure defending.

"They have done terrific this season, both of them," said United's Phil Jones on Saturday, and Smalling's fit-again England colleague faces a wait to return to central defence after suffering thrombosis in preseason. Van Gaal's reluctance to move Blind out had been shown by his replacing of broken-leg victim Luke Shaw at left-back. First, he tried Marcos Rojo there and then switched Matteo Darmian over from right-back rather than return Blind to a position where he performed with credit last season. Centre-back is the sole position Blind has played from the start of 2015-16; he is a utility man no more.

At 5-foot-11 and short on speed, there are moments when Blind's lack of physique and experience at centre-back are apparent, such as when being overpowered for Swansea's two goals in their 2-1 defeat of United in August, or when David Caliguiri's strike for Wolfsburg on Wednesday saw Blind drawn out of position and unable to keep pace. But within a team that plays mostly on the front foot against packed opposing defences, having a defender who can bring the ball out and supply killer passes is a valuable, added dimension that Smalling or Jones do not offer.

Blind is also a willing disciple of his manager, for whom he performed a variety of roles in Netherlands' run to third place at the 2014 World Cup.

"Louis van Gaal sees everything, and what he says always comes true," Blind said in the summer. "Many times we won matches on details which he had practiced in training beforehand."

He might have been talking about the goal he himself scored in last month's 3-1 defeat of Liverpool, where a training-ground routine was executed to perfection. Juan Mata's lateral free kick went straight to an onrushing Blind, who finished with a rising shot from the edge of the area. Van Gaal's delighted high-fiving of his coaches suggested a plan had been performed to the letter.

Being a coach's dream appears Blind's lot. His loss is still keenly felt at Ajax, where he has become symbolic for a fallen giant unable to retain its young stars long enough to benefit in more than monetary terms.

In May, manager Frank De Boer lamented that United's £16 million offer had been too good to turn down. "Two years ago, everybody was saying what we had to do with Daley Blind," he told ESPN FC. "He made a transformation, 90 percent he did for himself, and he had a fantastic season. He became one of the leaders, but then he's gone. You see how he's doing at Manchester United."

In the Netherlands, football men have glowing things to say about Blind. It is becoming that way at Old Trafford.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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