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Jarrad Branthwaite to Manchester United: Why Erik ten Hag could make an exception for Everton defender

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Left-footed centre-back pairings rarely work, so why do Manchester United appear willing to take the chance on Jarrad Branthwaite working with Lisandro Martinez? Sky Sports takes a look back at those that have tried and why Erik ten Hag seems ready to make an exception for Branthwaite

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Manchester United have Jarrad Brantwhaite top of their centre-back list. His prioritisation becomes perplexing when you consider that Lisandro Martinez, their best centre-back, is also left-footed.

Left-footed centre-back pairings are scarce in elite football. Conventional wisdom dictates that it just doesn’t work, even though, up until recently, there has been no such issue with two right-footed centre-backs.

Everton’s Brantwhaite is ahead of Marc Guehi, Jean-Clair Todibo and Leny Yoro in United’s thinking. They are all right-footed, as is Raphael Varane, departing as a free agent at the end of the month.

In searching for Varane’s successor, United appear to be challenging that thinking. Few others have tried.

Aymeric Laporte’s France career never happened because Didier Deschamps refused. Intriguingly, after Laporte switched allegiances to Spain he played with Pau Torres, also left-footed, in three games at Euro 2020.

Although, the former Man City defender was dropped for the semi-final, having looked awkward in possession on his adopted side. There was a similar outcome in rare outings with Nathan Ake at City, too. Hardly encouraging.

Ethan Pinnock and Ben Mee at Brentford are another rare example

Everton's Jarrad Branthwaite celebrates with team-mates after scoring their side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool. Picture date: Wednesday April 24, 2024.
Image:Everton knocked back Man Utd’s opening bid

On the surface, the Branthwaite pursuit is puzzling. More so when considering Erik ten Hag’s reluctance to use a right-footed centre-back as Martinez’s understudy, preferring left-back Luke Shaw.

Explaining his thinking in 2023, Ten Hag said: “Because the left-footed are better orientated on the left side, in possession you then have better angles.”

For much of the season, Ten Hag refused to play Varane next to Harry Maguire because he felt the team’s fluidity was negatively impacted with one of them at left centre-back.

Requiring a left-footed centre-back is a relatively new phenomenon in the Premier League. Not all managers buy into it, but Ten Hag sees it as a priority. Martinez is only 26 and clearly favoured in left centre-back. So why would Ten Hag make an exception here?

For Everton, the 21-year-old has played all his games in the Premier League this season on the left side of defence. However, when you look further back in his career, Branthwaite has experience on the other side.

Branthwaite has only played on the left side of defence for Everton this past season
Image:Branthwaite has only played on the left side of defence for Everton this past season
Jarrad Branthwaite caught the eye as PSV beat Arsenal in the Europa League group stages last season
Image:Jarrad Branthwaite in action for PSV against Arsenal

In a loan spell at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in 2022/23, Branthwaite played 44 per cent of his game-time as a right centre-back under United legend Ruud Van Nistelrooy. He also filled in at right-back for a bit.

This is because, despite being predominantly left-footed, Branthwaite can play off his right foot, too. Van Nistelrooy goes a step further. “He is good on the ball, can play on the left or the right of centre-back because he is two-footed.”

Video game EA FC 24 has given him a five-star weak foot. For context, Victor Lindelof, the right-footed centre-back Ten Hag prefers as left centre-back when pushed, has a four-star weak foot.

Jarrad Branthwaite
Image:Jarrad Branthwaite has impressed for Everton this season

Branthwaite is so two-footed, it seems, that his former academy coach at Carlisle insists we’ve all got it wrong about which foot comes naturally to the defender. “Jarrad is not left-footed!” Eric Kinder told the Liverpool Echo earlier this year. “He’s right-footed, but both feet are exactly the same.”

He added: “It made me laugh when Jamie Carragher said young left-footed centre-backs are hard to find. I laughed.

“When people would ask me if Jarrad Branthwaite had a chance, I would say: ‘He’s six-foot four, he can head the ball and he kicks with both feet. What can go wrong?’.”

Kinder’s prediction was nearly spot on. Branthwaite’s ability as a left-footer to play on the right makes him a unique proposition in the transfer market. Thus United’s hurry to sign him.

Martinez and Shaw’s bad luck with injury over the past season has left United without any left-footers in the heart of defence. The addition of Branthwaite would give them a partner for Martinez and a suitable understudy if his problems persist.

The lack of recent experience on the right side of defence does raise question marks, however. The other qualities that Branthwaite brings have clearly encouraged United to take this calculated risk.

Lisandro Martinez
Image:Lisandro Martinez missed most of the season through injury for Man Utd
Branthwaite is comfortable in possession
Image:Branthwaite is comfortable in possession

Like Martinez, one of the success stories of Ten Hag’s transfer dealings, Branthwaite is comfortable passing out at the back, a quality that’s been missing for United this season in the Argentine’s absence.

Branthwaite is also quicker than the rest of United’s central defenders, his large stride giving him an advantage in foot races with opposition attackers. The 6ft 5in defender’s recovery speed makes him perfectly suited to a high back line.

We saw the way William Saliba allowed Arsenal to transform their defensive shape for similar reasons when he came into the first team.

Branthwaite also brings a lot of the same traits as Varane, the man he would replace in the back four at Old Trafford.

In tackles, interceptions, duels won and aerial duels won per 90, Branthwaite comes out on top. His strengths in these are well suited to the transitional style of play Ten Hag has tried to implement.

Often, United’s defenders struggle to keep up with that intensity, which is why we’ve seen that gaping hole in midfield due to the team simultaneously playing a low block and a high line.

Varane outperforms Branthwaite in percentage of aerial duels won and percentage of duels won, but in the latter metric both are in the top 10 in the Premier League, along with Harry Maguire.

Ten Hag likes to put his defenders one vs one often, so coming out on top of those duels is vital. If you’re beaten, the rest of the team can quickly become exposed, partly explaining the ease with which teams have played through United this season.

United are considering going back in for Branthwaite after seeing a £35m bid rejected by Everton, who value the defender at £70m. It is understood United will move on if Everton do not bring down their asking price.

If they can come to an agreement, United could form one of the few elite left-footed centre-back pairings.

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