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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Manchester United's iron curtain

The Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic defensive pairing will be the biggest challenge for Chelsea to overcome at Old Trafford

Affection is often conveyed better by gesture than words. Somebody once asked Rio Ferdinand whether John Terry was the bravest footballer he knew. Ferdinand chuckled and glanced behind him. There stood Nemanja Vidic, sporting fresh wounds from a game Manchester United had just completed, broken nose snaking down his craggy face. Ferdinand looked back at the questioner, eyebrows raised, not needing to say a thing.

Point made.
Every good side needs centre-halves who admire, trust and inspire one another. A centre-back pairing is where a football XI’s equivalent of a marriage is found. Chelsea have a fond partnership in Terry and Ricardo Carvalho but, so far, in a season where no forward has dominated the competition, Ferdinand and Vidic have arguably been the most important two players in the Premier League. That United are still pushing to retain the title is largely down to them. The champions have scored fewer goals than five clubs, including relegation-threatened Manchester City, and rather than the symphonic attacking we are used to, they have been playing kazoo solos when they cross the halfway line. Yet Liverpool and Chelsea cannot shake them. Their defence is giving so little away.

Eleven hours and 12 minutes of playing time have passed since United last conceded in the top flight. Their seven straight Premier League clean sheets equal the club record.

Sir Alex Ferguson is worried about his forwards. “Normally our goal difference is the best in the league and worth an extra point to us but we’re creating a lot of chances and not taking them,” he said. “I keep talking about concentration and I’m hoping we’re going to do better in the second half of the season because if it turns out that’s what costs us the league, we’ll never stop kicking ourselves.” United’s back-line, he acknowledged, has been their beacon.

“Good defensive records point to winning the league and that part is right. Chelsea’s away form is something you have to respect,” he added, but with Ferdinand fit again after a back injury, United’s opponents will not find scoring easy at Old Trafford, never mind achieving their first win there in four seasons.

Didier Drogba has never scored at the stadium and Nicolas Anelka has not done so in 10 years. Luiz Felipe Scolari is under pressure to play both strikers from the start, something he has done just once in the league, but Chelsea’s midfield, notably Frank Lampard, has been their best source of penetration against United in recent years. Patrice Evra is back from a five-match suspension to reinforce Ferguson’s rearguard.

“Manchester won’t give us the chance to shoot at goal 27 times, as Southend did [in the FA Cup last week],” Scolari said. “We need to build three or four chances and we need to score two goals minimum.”

One is a tall order. Vidic and Ferdinand are the classic double act of contrasts on the football field. Ferdinand, cerebral, effortless, relaxed, is the yang. Vidic, physical, aggressive, even cruel, is the yin. The ball-player and the hard man. The Chelsea partnership of Carvalho and Terry is similar to an extent, but Vidic and Ferdinand more closely resemble their United predecessors, Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce.

Pallister said: “I used to say to Steve, ‘You can’t do any more damage to that face, so go for it’ and he loved challenging for the ball, especially in the air. In the same way, Vidic loves nothing better than smashing someone in a 50-50, getting in the attacker’s face, getting his head in the way at a corner. Rio can feed off that, just like I did with Brucey, and he’s a similar personality to me – casual, laid-back. Rio and Vidic remind me of Brucey and myself – perfect foils.”

Pallister and Bruce became close friends off the pitch. Regularly, the pair and their wives went out for dinner as a foursome and they would wind up the Mancunians, Londoners and Irishmen who shared their Old Trafford dressing room by saying the best footballers in the British Isles came from the northeast, of which they were both sons.

Vidic and Ferdinand are not such buddies but mutual respect is strong and they came of age together. Vidic joined United in January 2006 and in his first two league appearances the side shipped six goals. For the remainder of that season he faced criticism and the Serb, fresh from the Russian league, suddenly found himself having to step up.

For Ferdinand it was about growing up. Indeed, “time to grow up” are the closing words of his autobiography, completed in summer 2006. At that point he was yet to eradicate the fuzzy decision-making and failure to assert himself that, since youth, had marred his game.

A tendency to lose focus was the problem but for the past two and a half seasons Ferdinand has been impeccable: switched on, decisive, in charge. Over the same period Vidic has established himself as one of the world’s top defenders.

“There is no substitute for playing with a regular partner, gaining an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Pallister said.

“For instance, Steve had this habit of sometimes bringing the ball down on his chest rather than heading it away. Sir Alex would go crazy and I learnt to spot when it was going to happen and get into a position where Steve could play the ball to me safely with his next touch. With Vidic settled beside him, Rio has found consistency and grown. I watched him for Leeds United and there you saw him screaming and urging other players on, yet when he came to United he went quiet and allowed Gary Neville and Roy Keane to do those things. But over the last 18 months he has taken on responsibility and now he’s the leader, the guy who sparks the team. Vidic will challenge for the ball and he’ll get into those little areas where he can pick it up and use his footballing ability. The partnership suits his game.” Since Vidic arrived, United’s obduracy has increased. They have conceded 51 times in his 85 league appearances – one goal per 150 minutes of football. In 10 seasons preVidic, opponents scored against United once every 95 minutes.

The centre-back alliance is not the only reason. The feisty Evra has been significant and Edwin van der Sar and Wes Brown contributed to United’s defensive improvements, especially last season. But two things make Vidic and Ferdinand seem special. Unlike most great centre-back pairings, including Bruce and Pallister, who had Peter Schmeichel, they have not been supported by a goalkeeper of world-class ability playing at his peak (the former applies to Van der Sar but not, now that he is in his late thirties, the latter).

Again, unlike Bruce and Pallister, who had Roy Keane and Paul Ince, they have not been protected by ball-winning, defence-minded midfield players.

Many said Carlos Queiroz, now the Portugal manager, was the guru behind United’s advances in defending but Queiroz departed as first-team coach last summer and, statistically, the team are harder to score against than ever.

Ferguson does not need a particular No 2, not even one as good as Queiroz, to teach him the importance of defending. His United have been renowned for their buccaneering style but, stretching back to his Aberdeen days, he has built sides on the foundation of a super-solid back four.

“Fergie is aware of what Man United are about, the club’s history of attacking football, but he always wants to defend properly. ‘Keep clean sheets’, he used to say when I played,” Pallister said. “He felt it worked on the psyches of other teams. It scares rivals when they see you’re not giving much away. Jose Mourinho built Chelsea the same way – Mourinho’s Chelsea had an aura. When they scored, teams were frightened because they never believed they could get a goal back.”

When Ferguson finds defenders to trust, he trusts them to an unusual degree. Other coaches have noted he is one of the few managers willing to leave his centre-backs without cover and let them defend one-on-one against opposing strikers, which in turn helps United’s attacking play as it lets them keep extra men forward.

“In one home game Steve and I spent the first half screaming at Denis Irwin and Paul Parker because they kept bombing upfield and we thought one full-back should stay if the other attacked. At half-time we continued having a go until Fergie came into the dressing room. He told me and Steve, ‘Listen boys, it’s two v two, you against the strikers, I think you’re more than capable of dealing with them, don’t you? Especially at Old Trafford, we’ve got to take risks’. That was his approach but even if we won 5-1 and the opposition scored in the last minute, you could see on his face afterwards that he’d hated conceding the goal.”

United have won four of their past five league games by a single unanswered goal. “1-0 to United” may yet succeed “1-0 to the Arsenal” as a terrace chant. Ferguson is hardly the new George Graham. But perhaps he is not as far removed from his compatriot as people imagine.


Manchester United have won four of their past seven Premier League games 1-0, echoing the George Graham Arsenal side of the 1990s. More recently, only Chelsea, in Jose Mourinho’s first season, won 1-0 more often. So far this season United have had five 1-0 wins in 18 matches (28%). The 2004-05 Chelsea side had 11 1-0 wins in 38 games (29%). Graham’s best season for 1-0 victories came in 1993-94 when Arsenal managed seven in 42 matches (17%). In 1995-96, in winning the title, United had eight in 38 games (21%).

11,207 Posts
Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Glad you guys enjoyed it as much as I did, which is why I bothered putting it up. Our backline has been a great platform for our recent success and a lot of that has to do with the bedrock of Vidic & ferdinand.

Long may it continue.

25,467 Posts
great read RFR. Especially appropriate after today's game, even though Rio was
out injured. Evans was a collosus, Vidic was just awesome, amazing!!
Neville is back in the game making great tackles. We have Wes to come back,
Evra just back after his ban and OShea as a replacement when called upon.
Iron curtain fo shizzle!!
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