Manchester United’s Central Defensive Conundrum

Nemanja Vidic has been ruled out for the rest of the season

The agonising sight of Nemanja Vidic writhing in pain on the surface of St. Jakob Park on Wednesday evening filled dread into the hearts of everyone concerned with Manchester United. United were already 1-0 down and facing possible elimination from European football’s most prestigious club competition, and now they had their skipper down on the turf with what looked like a potentially season ending knee injury. A sight for sore eyes indeed.

So, as Sir Alex Ferguson took his seat for Friday’s pre-match press conference, everyone waited with bated breath to hear about the extent of Vidic’s injury. It was rumored that he would be out for at least a period of four months and Ferguson confirmed that his captain had suffered ruptured knee ligaments and had been ruled out for the rest of the season. Major, major blow to the English champions.

Manchester United, without Nemanja Vidic this season, have had more holes in their defense than Swiss cheese. As he limped off with an injury on the opening day of the season at the Hawthorns, there was a sense of impending doom about United’s defense. They struggled to fill the hole that Vidic had left behind. A variety of combinations were tried in the center of defense and each one proved ineffective as the opposition invariably found a way through the heart of United. He returned to the United side a week after the derby defeat and immediately shored up the leaky defense. United went on a run of 7 clean sheets in 8 games. But now they face a severe test of their credentials.

Jonny Evans has well and truly failed to live with up to the potential he showed in the 2007/08 season. His form has dipped alarmingly and United have had to suffer accordingly. He took the majority of the blame when the “noisy neighbours” Manchester City thrashed the Red Devils 6-1 in their own backyard. Evans was caught out of position for Balotelli’s opener. He then proceeded to haul down Balotelli in the second half as he got his body position all wrong and got sent-off. Cue utter humiliation as City ran riot.

Phil Jones has taken to Manchester United like duck to water. He has already been deployed in a variety of positions ranging from right-back to central midfield. But it is his natural position at center-back, where he has looked most vulnerable. There is no doubt that he possesses a lot of talent and the promise of his potential being fulfilled is looking odds on but he has shown a lack of inexperience in certain situations, as is to be expected of a 19 year old. Fernando Torres turned him on his blind side on more than one occasion during Chelsea’s loss to Old Trafford. He was also found wanting when Peter Crouch headed Stoke’s equalizer at the Britannia Stadium. He possesses a lot of raw power and pace, loves to play the ball out of defense and has already drawn comparisons with the great Duncan Edwards but he still has a long way to go to establish himself as a regular center back in the Manchester United and England setup.

Chris Smalling has made a remarkable jump from non-league football to the Premier League and he certainly does not look out of place playing with Europe’s elite. Just 3 seasons ago, he was playing for Maidstone United before Fulham snapped him up. Ferguson saw the potential than this youngster was showing and swooped him from Craven Cottage. His has been a rapid rise from obscurity to the big time and one which he seemingly relishes. He has shown outstanding understanding of the game and is held in high regard by those associated with the club. He has shown maturity beyond his age but now his credentials will well and truly be tested in the absence of Vidic. A bigger role and huge responsibility await the Englishman.

Rio Ferdinand takes center stage in the absence of Vidic

And now onto the juggernaut that is Rio Ferdinand. Time has not been too kind on Ferdinand as he has struggled with injuries in the last couple of seasons. Vidic and Ferdinand have formed an almost unbreacheble partnership in the center of defense and with Vidic, Rio looks lost. The 33 year old has lost that yard of pace but he more than makes up for it with his magnificent ability to read the game. He tends to suffer from lapses in concentration, most notably in the Manchester derby last season when he gave the ball straight to Craig Bellamy, who went on to to score. But with Vidic out for the season, Ferdinand can ill afford any mistake. He is the most experienced of the back four (even Patrice Evra looks all at sea). With a goalkeeper (David De Gea) still adapting to the Premier League, Rio Ferdinand now takes center stage at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Manchester United’s mettle with be severely tested now till the end of the season but with the Basel hangover still not over, Sir Alex Ferguson must make sure his charges are up for the job. You build a team from the back, and that’s what United will be looking to do as they look to tighten up the backbone of the team in the absence of their influential captain.

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