It’s been a bad couple of weeks if you like rugged, no-nonsense defending. First Lucas Leiva was ruled out for the season, then the surprisingly excellent Steven Taylor followed suit. Next was Nemanja Vidic, who won’t appear again for between 9 and 12 months after an extremely serious cruciate ligament injury picked up in Basel.
According to WhoScored.com, Lucas was the Premier League’s most prolific tackler this season, Taylor was the most frequent blocker, and had Vidic played more games to get him up to the quorum needed for inclusion on the list, he would have been the most frequent clearer.
Vidic’s injury was the most painful to watch, but potentially the least painful loss for his side. Jay Spearing was sent off in his audition to replace Lucas away at Fulham last month, whilst Newcastle’s concession of four goals at Carrow Road on Saturday shows their lack of quality without Taylor and his centre-back partner Fabricio Coloccini.
Making the uncertain assumption that United wouldn’t have turned around their Champions League game in Switzerland – they lost 2-1, and were 1-0 down when Vidic went off – his injury couldn’t have come at a better time for United. In seven days, they suffered setbacks in three separate competitions – they went out of the Carling Cup to Crystal Palace, they exited the Champions League, and they were drawn away to Manchester City in the Third Round of the FA Cup. The phrase ‘transition season’ re-emerged – the aim had been to make this simultaneously a transition season and a successful one. That’s still possible – United are two points off the top in the league – but a trophy-less season is now far from unthinkable.
If, then, this is to be a transition season, United may as well start sorting out the defence.
Vidic frequently has superb games, yet often looks vulnerable to the slightest bit of pace. It was his Achilles heel last season, when he turned in a couple of very bad displays – away at Villa Park and Upton Park spring to mind – in an otherwise impressive season. It is acceptable to be outrun by Fernando Torres when the Spaniard was at his peak, but when you’re having trouble with Carlton Cole, it’s a different story altogether. Those moments of difficulty were extremely worrying.
His supporters will point to the age-old argument – “Ah, but he’s never relied on his pace, so it won’t be an issue when he starts to lose it.” It’s a nice line, but it only really works for forwards – Teddy Sheringham, for example, wasn’t speedy when he was 25, so could play on until 40 playing basically the same game. For defenders, your role is inherently reactive, which means being ‘very slow’ is significantly more of a problem than being ‘slow’. Strikers don’t have to use their pace if they don’t want to. Defenders are often forced to.
There’s one exception, of course—defenders can compensate for a lack of pace by adjusting their positioning and playing deeper. And deeper and deeper. In fact, this is exactly what Rio Ferdinand has been doing in the past couple of years, and now Vidic has started doing it too. Those two were once the best defensive partnership in Europe – now, they only look comfortable when they can defend in the sanctity of the penalty box.
That is perfectly fine – if you want to play that way, Vidic is the man in Europe. He’ll head every ball, he’ll make as many last-ditch tackles as you want. The clearance statistic tells its own story. But the effect upon the whole side shouldn’t be overlooked – if the defence defends deep, then the midfield has to drop deep, then the forwards have to drop deep. The whole side’s positioning is compromised by the lack of pace of the defenders, and there’s less attacking threat. It’s the antithesis of the type of football Barcelona play, the type of football that so thoroughly outplayed United at Wembley in May.
Pep Guardiola’s side are masters of universality. The attackers help defend, the defenders help attack. But the defenders don’t just contribute to the attacking potential on the ball; they contribute with their positioning, aggressively pushing the opposition back into their own half. When Barcelona had an injury crisis last season, Guardiola chose to play Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets rather than Gabriel Milito. In the traditional sense of the word, the Vidic sense of the word, Milito was a far better defender. But he could no longer turn and run, and therefore he was useless to Barcelona.
Not everyone must replicate Barcelona – indeed, maybe too many teams are doing that – but the point still stands. Vidic has to play deep, so United have to play deep. Their side looks more solid at the back but less potent going forward. Everyone reached for the obvious comparison – in the league with Vidic this season, United concede 0.33 goals per game compared to 1.3 without him (a statistic rather skewed by the concession of six goals in one game against Manchester City, when five of the six came when United only had ten men). No-one looked at it the other way – with Vidic, United score 1.16 goals per game. Without him, they score 3.1 goals per game.
There are countless other variables involved, of course, but it’s a staggering figure. This won’t be considered – there’s still a refusal to accept that a defender can have such a large influence upon a side’s attacking potential, but football is not compartmentalised into two or three separate parts, it is a unit. Vidic makes Vidic look good. He doesn’t necessarily make United look good. A succession of 1-0 wins turned into a 4-1 at the weekend when Vidic wasn’t there. Nani played better, Antonio Valencia played better, Wayne Rooney played better.
To embrace their new generation of talent – Smalling, Jones, Tom Cleverley, Javier Hernandez – United need to be an attacking, positive, proactive side. They need to play high up the pitch, to take the game to the opposition. Whether that’s compatible with a defender like Vidic is doubtful, as John Terry has found to his cost in recent weeks under Andre Villas-Boas’ new regime. With the nature of Vidic’s injury setback, physically he might become even more restricted in his movement, which would be a sad way for an exceptional footballer to spend the twilight of his career.
That’s not to say that United won’t miss Vidic: more important than his defensive quality is his leadership ability, something difficult to replace. Nor does it mean his United career is over – any club would want a player of his experience and stature around, and United have lost too many veterans recently.
But if this is to be a transition year, Vidic’s loss shouldn’t be mourned too much. Duncan Castles, the well-connected Sunday Times journalist, last week ran a story stating that Ferguson was ready to let both Ferdinand and Vidic leave the club next summer. Replacing those two was already on the cards – this has merely accelerated the process. A younger, fresher, more positive centre-back duo will be the key to helping United’s next generation thrive.
Michael Cox is the author of the Zonal Marking blog and is a regular contributor to the Guardian and ESPN.com.