Great partnerships, whether in attack or defence, are hard to come by in football. It’s either one of the two failing to adapt to conditions around them – through either a lack of talent or a lack of adaptability – or a failed experiment by the man at the helm. But some work out perfectly and shape the long-term future and success of a side. One such duo, Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, came to be in England with Manchester United and were the backbone of their success for eight years.
Their dominance began in 2006 when the Serb arrived at the club from Spartak Moscow and would end in 2014 when they both went their separate ways after nearly a decade together at the top. United are still feeling the effects of their joint departures, and even José Mourinho, a man who builds his teams around the back line, has stated that the club needs an inspirational leader in the mould of Ferdinand or Vidić.
His latest recruit, Eric Bailly, drew comparisons with Ferdinand early on, but recent injury problems have curtailed his progress. Chris Smalling has been a rejuvenated figure since Louis van Gaal’s arrival in 2014, but he too has the same problems as his Ivorian team-mate. Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and even Jonny Evans – who left in 2015 – have been unable to replicate their best form on a consistent basis, largely due to injury or extreme recklessness, and Daley Blind, probably van Gaal’s most prominent signing, has at times succumbed to the pace and physicality of the league.
But this feature isn’t about devaluing the players hoping to emulate their predecessors. Instead, it celebrates the magnificent eight years that an Englishman and a Serb spent together to glorify the honour of the football club they represented. It celebrates the greatest defensive partnership in Premier League history.
Fiorentina’s loss was Manchester United’s gain in 2005 when Sir Alex Ferguson swooped in and picked up Nemanja Vidić towards the end of 2005. La Viola’s lack of non-EU slots on their roster meant they couldn’t complete the signing of the Spartak defender, despite having agreed to match his buyout clause. The Florence side’s former chief, Pantaleo Corvino, even recalls giving the Serb a bag as a congratulatory souvenir upon the initial deal that was struck with Spartak.
But Ferguson’s precise timing helped forge something that will live long in the memory of the Red Devils faithful. Vidić made his debut for United a month after completing his deal and would go on to make 14 more appearances that season – many of which came from the bench – including one in a League Cup final success over Wigan Athletic. He graciously gave his first medal in English football to team-mate Giuseppe Rossi, who he believed had earned it more.
It wasn’t until the start of the 2006-07 season that he would team up with Rio Ferdinand at the back, and they would make the sternest of partnerships in European football. Having seen Mourinho’s Chelsea dominate the Premier League scene for the two seasons prior, Ferdinand and Vidić’s chemistry together would help the Red Devils launch a title challenge as well as reach the semi-finals of the Champions League and finish as runners-up in the FA Cup. Their astonishing defensive contribution saw them concede just 27 league goals, and the blossoming attacking talent of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo saw them firing on all cylinders.
Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar had his often exceptional work made easy with the two centre-backs in front, as well as the ever present full-backs around him, Gary Neville and Patrice Evra, all of whom made it onto the PFA Premier League Team of the Season that year. However, if that season was brilliant, the next was even better.
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The 2007-08 season saw Ferdinand and Vidić become the most frequent names on the United team sheet. Amassing 41 starts together across all competitions, their statistics were more miserly than ever. Ferdinand also had the opportunity to take the captain’s armband due to Gary Neville’s injury problems, which forced him to make just one substitute appearance all season.
Having retained the Premier League title in emphatic fashion, conceding just 22 goals and having a goal difference of +58 – the second highest in Premier League history, behind Chelsea’s +71 two years later – the pair also retained their spot on the PFA’s Team of the Season and had greater success on the grandest platform.
It was on the European stage where United put the gloss on their season as they beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow after an enthralling game and a dominant season where they put the likes of Barcelona, Roma and Lyon to the sword, conceding just six goals in 13 games. Their magnificence at the back earned them high praise from around the footballing world and they were staking their claim to be one of the greatest defensive duos in the sport’s history.
Club legend Sir Bobby Charlton, who rose from the ashes to see the club go from strength to strength following the horror of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, has seen some fine pairings at the club but regards Ferdinand and Vidić as the greatest defensive pairing in the history of the club, even ahead of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, who won a number of honours during the 1990s. He said in an interview in 2011: “We’ve had some magnificent centre-halves down the years, but these two [Ferdinand and Vidić] form the most formidable pairing of all.”
The only other partnership in the Premier League era which comes close, in terms of success at home and abroad, was the one at Chelsea between John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, who helped the club create a new domestic dynasty under Roman Abramovich. The major difference, for me anyway, was that the United pairing didn’t have the world-class exploits of Claude Makélélé ahead of them. Instead, the defensive duties were largely left to Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Paul Scholes – players with considerable ability in possession and in attack but without the shielding skills of the former Real Madrid and France man.
Entering the following campaign as champions at home and abroad, the partnership at the back now had more respect than ever. They would cement their legacies that season as they’d go nearly 1,311 minutes without conceding in the league; that’s 11 games and nearly four months of Premier League football without letting the ball enter their net.
They were the silk and steel of the side, with Ferdinand the former and Vidić the latter. Ferdinand was a calm figure, a smart ball-playing central defender who had the elegance to make him one of the best of his generation, while Vidić was the enforcer, the man who would take no nonsense and whose aggression, timing, tackling and aerial skills were in a league of their own. The two complemented each other and together they were the perfect pairing when fit.
In the spring of 2009, however, the cracks started to show. After their record-breaking run, title rivals and old nemesis Liverpool came to Old Trafford in a bid to claim top spot in the league. After taking the lead through a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the first half, the stage looked set for United to seal a 12th successive league win. But just eight minutes later, Fernando Torres’ high pressing and eagerness forced Vidić into losing concentration and letting the Spaniard free to equalise.
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Patrice Evra’s foul on Steven Gerrard in the penalty box just minutes before the interval allowed the Reds to take the lead from the spot, before Vidić, who endured a horror afternoon, was sent off for pulling down the Liverpool captain while he was on his way to goal. Ferdinand was helpless after that as Fábio Aurélio would score from the resultant free-kick and add a fourth just before the end after a lapse in concentration from the United back line.
The result did, however, just prove to be a blip in a supreme title challenge as their lead at the top was never in much doubt. They would win the league with a four-point gap over Liverpool to add to their League Cup success, and would again see Vidić and Ferdinand earn spots on the PFA Team of the Season, as well as individual nominations for the PFA’s Player of the Year award to honour their immaculate efforts for the club over the course of that season.
They would also have the chance to seal a treble and a historic second successive Champions League title as they faced Barcelona in the final in Rome. The final at the Stadio Olimpico arguably marked the changing of the guard at the helm of European football as Barcelona outclassed their English opponents with Pep Guardiola’s reinvention of the well-versed tiki-taka style to claim the crème de la crème of continental club football. A resounding 2-0 success, where the duo at the back were hypnotised by Barcelona in attack, would subsequently end their shot at antiquity.
The result in Rome would eventually spell the end for this superb partnership at the back as inconsistency, injuries and the emergence of younger, fresher talent would place their spots in danger. United lost the 2009-10 league title to a free-scoring Chelsea but would retain it just a year later, where Vidić would captain the side and also become the Premier League’s Player of the Year, despite the fact that his partner-in-crime was often absent.
If United fans hoped for an unabated run in the team for the two during the 2011-12 season, they would be left disappointed. Their captain picked up a career-threatening knee injury in a crucial Champions League game in Basel and his absence was felt around the club as they would hand over their title to local rivals Manchester City and finish the season without a major honour for the first time since 2002.
He returned in time for the next campaign, but seeing the pair play together became an increasing rarity with Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling all partnering either one or relegating both of them to the bench. They finished as champions in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign as Manchester United manager, before David Moyes’ torrid nine months in charge of the champions spelt the end in tumultuous fashion.
Vidić announced his departure to Inter Milan in February 2014 while Ferdinand completed the 2013-14 campaign before being let go by new boss Louis van Gaal to join his former manager Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers. They played their final game together under interim coach Ryan Giggs away at Southampton and received rapturous applause from the United faithful who made the trip to the south coast that afternoon.
After a combined 20 seasons, 755 appearances and 10 major honours, Manchester United said goodbye to a partnership that can be ranked alongside the very best in the game’s history. Classy and powerful at the peak of their powers between 2006 and 2009, they join an illustrious club that contains great duos like AC Milan’s Baresi and Maldini of the 1990s, the Picchi-Burgnich of the Grande Inter era in the 1960s, Piqué and Puyol at Barcelona and a select few others.
By Karan Tejwani. Follow @karan_tejwani26