Why this man is key to Manchester United’s success

Rio Ferdinand is key to Manchester United's success this seasonRio Ferdinand has been the subject of much criticism in the past. People have judged him to be sloppy, over-priced, injury prone and most unfairly of all, past his best. Granted, the England captain is now 32, but his performances this season have been first-class. As Manchester United push for their twelfth Premier League title, it seems that Ferdinand has an important role to play.

Ferdinand’s importance to his team is illustrated well by the period he spent out injured earlier this season. In the six games he was not present in the team, nine goals were conceded, and winning positions were thrown away twice, against Bolton, when Nani missed a penalty, and against Everton, where United were 3-1 up leading into added time. This trend, other than one anomaly against West Brom, has stopped since Ferdinand’s return. United have conceded only 0.67 goals per game when Ferdinand plays, but that figure more than doubles to 1.36 when he is absent.

Manchester United have slipped up slightly of late, and this has undoubtedly had something to do with the injury that Ferdinand picked up before the league leaders’ match against Wolves. Ferdinand was due to start his 16th league match of this season, but picked up an injury to his calf in the warm-up. United went on to lose their unbeaten record in the league that day, losing 2-1 to Mick McCarthy’s men. Both goals came from set-pieces; these goals may well have been avoided had Ferdinand been present on the field.

Another example of United’s reliance on Ferdinand is their encounter with Blackpool, after which Ferguson joked that Charlie Adam was worth £10 million ‘for his corners alone’. Adam’s corners indeed led to both of the Seasiders’ goals but, despite the quality of his crosses, there is no way that a club pushing for the title should be conceding twice from set-pieces in any match, let alone against Wolves or Blackpool. In answer to those wondering why this may have happened, Ferdinand was again not playing.

His defensive partner, Nemanja Vidic, who has risen to world-recognition since his move to United from Spartak Moscow, is also a vital component of United’s back line, along with Frenchman Patrice Evra. In actual fact, Vidic is rated by many as the better of the two players, and has in recent times been awarded permanent captaincy by boss Sir Alex Ferguson. Even so, without Ferdinand at his side, he appears shaky at times, not always the man who bosses opposition forwards into submission. He also appears, consequently, to make more mistakes.

In truth, Ferdinand and Vidic are best when playing with each other, as they compliment each other brilliantly. Vidic is, at his best, entirely dominant, winning header after header and going in for tackles. Ferdinand, on the other hand, reads the game fantastically, and his game is therefore based on making interceptions rather than colossal challenges. He is also comfortable on the ball, and is able to make telling passes from the heart of defence. Perhaps Vidic’s greatest fault is his lack of pace (think of his struggles against Torres!), and Ferdinand more than makes up for this flaw. Despite many critics saying that Ferdinand has lost a yard because of injuries, he is still quicker than the vast majority of strikers.

Not only are these attributes visible on the pitch, but they are backed up by some incredible statistics too. Almost unbelievably, Ferdinand has made only one foul in the Premiership all season and has not been booked since 2008. He has missed only two tackles this campaign against last season’s top five teams, and this has contributed to United’s excellent record against the best sides this year: United have not yet lost a so-called ‘big game’. The reasons for Ferdinand’s successes in the tackle are simple – he is composed, and does not dive in. Young defenders should take note.

One young man is doing just that. Signed from Fulham for around £10 million, many fans had not even heard of Chris Smalling at the time, and no wonder, given that he was playing non-league football in 2008. Smalling plays very much in the style of Ferdinand: calm and composed on the ball, tall and reassured, and also reliable in the tackle. Although Smalling is not yet in Ferdinand’s league, his excellent recent performances suggest that, when injuries or age do get the better of Rio, United have a ready-made replacement to play alongside Nemanja Vidic.

For now, however, Ferdinand continues to be key to United and their chances of success in England and in Europe. United are currently only three points ahead of Arsenal, and still have to play Chelsea at home, as well as facing a trip to Arsenal which could decide who claims the title this season. Rivals Liverpool also lie in waiting tomorrow, and if points are dropped in many of these games, it may well be Arsenal that lift the trophy for the first time since 2004. For this reason, United need a fully-fit Ferdinand firing on all cylinders for the best chance of silverware come May.

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