As United were knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea on Monday night, sent on their way by a searing drive from the right foot of N’Golo Kante, Rojo was arguably their star man.
To anyone who witnessed many of his games since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon in 2014, this would have been unthinkable. Once it would have been beyond belief that, on a raucous night at Stamford Bridge with Eden Hazard in full flight, Rojo would be so resolute. Yet there he was, the picture of intensity, with so much energy that by the end of the game he was even pressing Chelsea’s defenders in the final third. His performance was a lesson in desire.
However, caveats are never too far away with Rojo and his unbridled fervour also took an unpleasant form. He appeared to stamp on Hazard, an incident which went unseen by the referee and which may yet result in a suspension. It would be a shame as, shortly behind Eric Bailly, Rojo has been United’s best central defender this season.
Manchester United’s defence has been the subject of ridicule in recent years: too often saved by the otherworldly reflexes of goalkeeper David De Gea. Now, though, Jose Mourinho’s team have the third-best defensive record in the Premier League, with 22 goals conceded in 26 games (and behind only Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, who have let in 20 each).
The turning-point for both Rojo and United probably came in that 4-0 league defeat at Chelsea, when the Argentina international took the field with his team already two goals down. It was the shot in the arm they needed and, following this game that United’s rearguard acquired the discipline and meanness that is the hallmark of all Mourinho’s best teams.
Rojo has been central to the evolution. But how has he achieved this? A great deal of credit will go to Mourinho’s coaching, but there must be plenty of praise for the player himself. One of his most conspicuous strengths has been his eye for the early pass, and he drives the ball into feet with as much pace as any defender in the division. Yet he does not sacrifice accuracy, distributing the ball with care. What is more, he does not over-elaborate at the back, and shows a surprisingly keen reading of the game.
Indeed, his statistics compare favourably with those of Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Chelsea’s David Luiz, widely regarded as two of the best centre-backs in the league.
Per 90 minutes, Rojo has a higher pass completion percentage than either of them (86 percent to Vertonghen’s 84 percent and Luiz’s 82 percent) and makes more key passes per game (0.35 against 0.17 and 0.17). He makes almost as many forward passes as Vertonghen (42.6 to 42.7) and significantly more than Luiz (34.2) — though, in fairness to the Chelsea defender, this may be more due to the nature in which his team build from the back.
Rojo also makes more interceptions than Vertonghen (1.76 to 1.54) though fewer than Luiz (2.04). One thing about his alleged stamp on Hazard is that it stands out from the rest of his disciplinary record this season — he actually averages fewer cards for bad challenges (0.14 per 90 minutes) than either Vertonghen (0.19) or Luiz (0.17). Cynics, of course, might argue that this simply reflects his skill in failing to get caught — such as his reckless two-footed tackles against Everton and Crystal Palace that did not see him sent off.
These numbers put the 26-year old in elite company, and are all the more impressive given that he has occasionally been played at left-back this year — a role to which he is startlingly ill-suited.
They are also numbers which, belatedly, justify the faith shown in him when he was bought three seasons ago. When Rojo plays at centre-back, he is no longer regarded as a liability, someone to be watched anxiously through one’s fingers.
Like Juan Mata, he was expected by many to be purged when Mourinho arrived at the club, but has instead developed into one of his manager’s most dependable lieutenants. He is, sadly, probably not the ideal long-term partner for Bailly — both of them still retain a rash streak, although some might argue that this has not hindered the duo of Pepe and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid — but, for now, he is worth his place in the side every week.
Should Rojo be suspended, as seems likely, then his absence will be noted with some concern by many United supporters. There is no greater compliment for a player than to be missed, and this would represent just how far he has come.
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