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.

Comments (33)

  1. the same problem inter has with lucio and samuel, they can only defend the penalty box. under jose mourinho, they played pretty deep, so the problem was never highlighted. after winning the champions league, inter started to attack more, bringing the defence and leaving them vulnerable to pace. the modern game is sad really, when amazing defenders like lucio and vidic are slowing down the team.

    • You’re absolutely correct about this. I think it’s interesting that post-Mourinho Inter managers have tried to change the team to a possession based high tempo attacking force. Not only was it futile to make players change to a system that doesn’t suit their strengths, it was doubly baffling when that team had just won a treble! Why are managers so afraid to defend deep and counter attack?

      Perhaps Inter were a special case – maybe they just had the perfect personnel for Mourinho’s system. Most teams don’t have defenders as brilliant as Lucio and Samuel (and Zanetti when he played right back) nor are there more than 1 or 2 other holding midfielders with the intelligence of Esteban Cambiasso. Similarly, Mourinho found two strikers (Eto’o and Pandev) who could attack effectively (well, maybe not pandev) but were also willing to track back relentlessly. Plus there was the dynamism of Maicon, the incredible long striker play of Milito and those glorious moments of genius from Wesley Sneijder that justify all the shortcomings in his game.

      Perhaps I’m just waxing poetic at this point, but Mourinho’s Inter showed that with the right players, a deep-defending counter-attacking side can be just as devastating as free scoring possession sides like Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

      As Mourinho said re: Barca before the 2010 CL Final (slight paraphrase) “We won not by parking the bus, or the boat or the airplane, but by smashing them 3-1 at the San Siro.”

  2. As you rightfully pointed out, Vidic is still tremendous when he has to make a play on the ball, so I don’t think United should just get rid of one of the best center-backs of this era.

    Maybe what Sir. Alex really needs to do is find himself a midfielder who is willing to sit further back and cover for Vidic, Ferdinand, and whoever else when they need it — like Busquets does for Barcelona.

    And honestly, I think Phil Jones fits that role pretty perfectly, especially since they do have another great young center-back in Smalling, so they can still use him as Vidic’s partner after Ferdinand is done, and have Jones sit in-front of them in a defensive-midfielder’s role.

  3. Who do you think will be the “younger, fresher, more positive centre-back duo” to replace Vidic & Rio? Do you think Smalling and Jones are up to it or do you think Ferguson should buy – if so, who would you suggest?

    • Hummels has been outstanding, I can see him landing in Old Trafford.

    • At there best (in form and in shape) it would be very interesting to finally see the Rafael-Jones-Smalling-Fabio defensive line. Pace up and down both wings combined with the urge to push forward from both centerbacks seems to be a very threatening option in the near future. Though the threat of being exposed on the counter attack would be greater than it ever has been, the offensive prowess of all four of them could very well make up for it.

    • Personally I really like Jones and Smalling looks a good prospect too…Hummels probably superior but don’t think that’s the priority position to buy for them now…

  4. If we’re accepting that the goals-conceded-without-Vidic stat is a touch skewed by the 6-1, should we not also note that the goals-scored-without-Vidic is itself a touch skewed by 5 in one game against a Bolton team that barely existed, and 8 in another against an Arsenal back-four comprising (left-to-right): the statue of Herbert Chapman, Gunnersaurus, a traffic cone, and half a pint of skimmed milk?

    • That pint of skim milk was pretty tasty, yeah?

    • Post of the day for sure.

      That Arsenal back four could have been better if they had substituted plastic army toys. Won’t forget that game for a long time.

      thanks for the laugh.

    • Ha outstanding Andrew

    • Maybe, but it’s not United’s fault that other sides were rubbish, that was a fair reflection of their ability to put goals past opponents. I’m not sure the 6-1 was a fair reflection of the defence considering United were down to ten for five of them, although it was of course Evans’ mistake to get himself sent off.

  5. The idea put forth in this article is skewed and incomplete. Vidic’s job was always to be the one who clears the box, wins headers and makes last ditch tackles. That is why most teams employ a DM who’s job it is to take pressure off his back four and make tackles further up the pitch. United do not have a player such as this. To even begin to mention Barcelona in this article is a sign of poor football understanding. A team with a dominant midfield such as Barcelona relies on their back four for different reasons, add to that that they play in the La Liga, a league vastly different than the flank heavy attack and cross Premier League, further differentiates the role of their back four. Vidic is the best in the world at what he does and shouldn’t have to change his role. What United need is a more solid midfield that can show any semblance of control over the game and then we can begin to discuss their back four in earnest.

    • “To even begin to mention Barcelona in this article is a sign of poor football understanding.”

      Hmm not sure about that. Don’t quite get your point. As stated, Vidic is the best at last-ditch defending, but last-ditch defending isn’t really want you should be aiming for. NO, Vidic shouldn’t have to change his role – they should get other players who can play a different role better. You’re certainly right about a holding player, though

      • Then again, if the ball could be won higher up, then the back line need not to worry about crosses. That’s why Barcelona could survive with the current back four. Except of course when the do lose the ball to pacey players and during set pieces, it could spell trouble but how often does that happens anyway..

  6. Great read. So, if Vidic and Rio play extra deep, and De Gea looks vulnerable when facing long shots, they’re in trouble. I’m liking ‘Ders Lindegaard, seems more relaxed and confident. I know it’s off-topic, but worth mentioning. (That’s right, ‘Ders)

  7. Man Utd still seem a team in transition. After last years defeat to Barca, Sir Alex has tried to get Man Utd to play a high tempo, high pressure game. And the first part of the season inc the Comm Shield it was successful, but due to the lack of experience in CB, RB and (to a lesser extent GK) Man Utd conceded lots of shots on goal. But got away with it as the attack were so potent.

    Sir Alex’s plan started to go wrong with the injury to Cleverley. He was the catalyst due to the fact his game was get the ball and move it on quickly, and was very mobile himself. Like Scholes with a very good engine. And Anderson complimented him very well as his defensive game is better (though still by no means great defensively), and Cleverley did most the running which meant Anderson’s lack of speed was covered to a certain degree. With this gone, Utd didn’t have another player of Cleverley’s ilk. So when Carrick game in, but as he is less mobile, Utd’s game lost a fair bit of speed from play in midfield. With the lack of speed in midfield this caused Utd’s attack to falter which put more pressure on the defence. This came to a head in the match against Man City.

    Since that match, Vidic has come in and as you so brilliantly put in your blog. The defence has excelled but the attack has struggled.

    Man Utd need another player of Cleverley’s game. Rather then Sneijder, Modric would be much better. And a top right back, to allow Smalling to come back into CB with Jones.

    Sorry if this is a bit of a ramble!

    • “Man Utd need another player of Cleverley’s game. Rather then Sneijder, Modric would be much better.”

      So true. Can’t add anything more…

  8. @andrew, to be fair the traffic cone block a couple shots, and the half a pint of skimmed milk had decent game.

  9. Michael Cox you don’t know what you are talking about, Vidic is the Best defendre in the world. 1.16 goals per game when he plays has nothing to do with the deffence. One game after his injury and you base the whole season on that one game. You are absolutely hopeless and you know nothing about footbal!!! Just before Vida came back they lost 6:1 at home to Mancester city. You dont mention that. I hope they don’t let you write here any more.

    • “You are absolutely hopeless and you know nothing about footbal!!!”

      Fair.

    • Maybe Michael’s personal life is in shambles – bad father, son, partner, friend. Maybe he is terrible to work with. Hard to speculate since I don’t even know him nor have seen him. But from the little I know he’s a class act. Most importantly, he’s a better football analyst than the best Marca and Sky Sports have to offer. Lots of people love his detailed and insightful articles that are pragmatic to the level his source stats are. He sees the game a top coach would. You may not like the stats he puts forth but stats are open to interpretation and he interprets them extremely well while alluding to exceptions. He shouldn’t have to deal with someone who calls Vidic ‘Vida’

  10. It’s a long, long way to score a goal, when you intercept the ball on the edge of your penalty box. That’s why I agree with the thoughts in the article.
    But there are other teams with the same problems. You should compare the stats of Vidic with the stats of other slow but otherwise excellent defenders. Is there a general pattern – the age of speedy CBs, who are a must to play modern, proactive high-pressing games?
    You mentioned Terry. To survive AVB also adopted strategy of sitting deep with Chelsea (Valencia and Man City – most of the game before red card). Pragmatic, got two wins. But against smaller teams that will also sit deep Chelsea will have to play more proactive. And due to the lack of pure speed at the back will again be vulnerable at the back. There are definitely interesting tactical decisions regarding transfer windows in front of us. One can even feel sorry for AVB, who wanted to play in a proactive way, but does not have the players to do so.

  11. Vidic’s strength is in the air, not on the ground. clears out almost everything at free kicks/corners/crosses. yes he isn’t so great on the ground, but I think his benefits outweigh his disadvantages. maybe it will change after the injury.

    interesting read, lots of good points.

  12. 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.

    I think the sequence of games where United looked more linear and started scoring fewer goals began with Hernandez’s return to injury. I think whether Hernandez, the classical poacher plays or not has a bigger impact on United’s style and goals scored rather than having Vidic or not.

  13. Proven last night when they beat Fulham. Whenever the ball is near the box i always thought that Fulham would score. But the defensive line is definitely higher and more players can be commited forward.

  14. You people who are criticizing Sir Michael Cox are insane. The man is a genius, the Score could use more people like him.

  15. Michael, you miss out on an important dimension.

    Having someone like Vidic, who mops up all the Route 1 stuff, against all sorts of forwards & teams, is what allows United to play all the small, skillful types in every other position.

    Imagine Rafael & Evra at fullback, Nani & Park on the wings, Cleverly & Anderson in the midfield & Rooney & hernandez upfront. Not an unlikely lineup at all, you’d agree. I don’t think one of them is above 6’1.

    Vidic allows United the freedom of playing a team such as that, because he can pretty much singlehandedly take out the opposition’s biggest aerial threat and have him in his little pocket. THe point of having so much pace & to some extent the mobility, I suppose is also to ensure that we close down people quickly in the danger areas and do not allow people to thread through a lot of passes which forces Vidic to turn and run towards his goal :-)

    Smashing work on ZM, love the site :-)

    Cheers,

    Sriram

  16. Great article, Michael. As a Man Utd supporter, I felt that one of the greatest defensive partnership in Utd’s history is dragging the team down no thanks to injury and age. They could not cope with the pace of decent strikers anymore. I can’t wait to see SAF to start playing Rafael, Jones, Smalling and Fabio regularly. The system has to change. We will need to bring in a box-to-box midfielder ie Tiote; to complete the team with the current crops of small, pacey players.

    The Blue dynasty might be raising but Utd’s future is as bright as ever because, that is simply SAF master plan. Back when Utd failed to qualify for the KO stages of UCL in 2005, they came back strongly and won the title 3 times in a row. He said, the failure to qualify gave the young players back then a lesson.

    It maybe coincident but this season, they have failed to qualify for the KO stages of UCL again. It was a huge lesson for those young defenders and I’m certain, Utd will still be at the top for many years with these players.

  17. lets say ManU sells him, do you think vidic would do well in Napoli? seeing as they are vulnerable to set pieces and crosses?

    and you are surprisingly calm about abuse and insults. classy.

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