The start of this season’s January transfer window marked the seventh anniversary of Patrice Evra’s arrival at Manchester United. If he gave himself time to reflect, he would have concluded that it has been some stay.
The France left-back, who has captained club and his country, has had as eventful and successful a career as any player who has come to England. He has won four Premier League titles, three League Cups, a Champions League and a Fifa Club World Cup. He has also been at the centre of two of the most high-profile race controversies to hit the sporting world in recent years, and has just emerged from 18 months of indifferent, if not poor, form to produce his best goalscoring season to date. Evra does not do dull.
He is, in many ways, the epitome of the modern Man Utd. He attacks with a thrilling relentlessness, yet at times shows an alarming fragility in defence. He divides opinion, and is driven by a rare fire. When Sir Alex Ferguson first handed him the captain’s armband, he knew that he was giving responsibility to a kindred spirit.
There was little indication after his debut, a calamitous 45-minute outing in a 3-1 derby defeat to Manchester City, that Evra would turn out to be one of Ferguson’s finest signings. That day he was hopelessly off the pace, but over time he would produce the form that helped AS Monaco reach the Champions League final in 2004.
Evra played for many years as a forward and a left-winger, his conversion to left-back being a reluctant acceptance that it was the best way to advance his career – and often this is apparent in his play. He frequently overlaps to excellent effect, though is sometimes caught high up the pitch after his excursions. The opening goal by SC Braga in the group stages of this season’s Champions League came after a swift crossfield ball was played in behind him, allowing the winger to exploit a good 20 yards of space before reaching the byline.
Despite these lapses, though, Evra has provided seven seasons of remarkably consistent numbers, as shown by Opta’s statistics for his time in the Premier League. He creates roughly one goalscoring opportunity per game, and regularly completes more than 20 passes in the opposition half. The two categories where his numbers are markedly different are in tackles and interceptions. He now tackles far less than he did when he arrived – down from 4.4 tackles per game to 2.6 this year – which might suggest that he is more cautious and perhaps better at reading the game now.
Interestingly, though, Evra now makes half as many interceptions as he did in the period regarded as his finest for the club. In 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 he made 2.5, 2.0 and 2.5 interceptions per game respectively; this season he is making an average of 1.3.
To give his performances some context, we can compare them to two of his finest peers: Chelsea’s Ashley Cole, long regarded as arguably the best left-back of his generation; and Everton’s Leighton Baines, recently tipped as being Evra’s eventual successor. The trio have played a similar number of games in the Premier League this season: Evra 21, Baines 22 and Cole 19.
On the basis of this data, Evra has certainly been busy. He has blocked more shots than either of his rivals – 12, compared with four by Baines and two by Cole. He has also made many more clearances than either player – 107, compared with 49 by Baines and 59 by Cole. He has scored four goals to Baines’ three and Cole’s one; and has created four goals to Baines’ two and Cole’s one.
The one glaring discrepancy is in chances created, an area in which Evra might have some cause from concern. Though Evra completes the same percentage of crosses as Baines (25 per cent, compared with under 10 per cent for Cole), he has created far fewer chances. Evra has made 21 chances, while Cole has made 13, and Baines is out on his own with an eye-catching 76. Ferguson will doubtless be intrigued by just what the England international could achieve if allowed to serve the forward line at Old Trafford.
Evra, however, will not be unduly daunted by the threat from Baines. He has encountered other dangers to his position at Old Trafford in the past, and has shown uncommon resilience in overcoming them. When he does eventually leave Old Trafford, he will do so as one of the most committed and decorated defenders the club has known. In the meantime, seven years into his dream job, he is turning up for work with as much passion as ever.