This feature is part of Duology
Every great team is, for the most part, built on a bedrock of a solid defensive foundation. It is through a stable centre-back partnership that confidence is transmitted across the team, where they are made to feel more secure to play attacking football in the knowledge that their teammates will patrol and mop up at the back. Such a partnership requires intrinsic chemistry between the pair but it is rare to find.
One of the duo may lack the necessary skills required to gel with his partner, may not possess the right attitude, or might simply be a square hole in a round peg. But with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, there was a perfect balance of calm and chaos, control and aggression. It made them the best centre-back partnership in the Premier League in the late 2000s, Sir Alex Ferguson’s trusted lieutenants at the back.
Ferdinand was the first to arrive at Old Trafford, to much fanfare. Joining from Leeds, he became the world’s most expensive defender for a second time, boasting a fee around £29m. His first season finished with a memorable Premier League triumph but his early days were clouded by a missed drug test in September 2003. It resulted in a £50,000 fine and an eight-month suspension beginning in the following January, ensuring he would miss out on the remainder of the season, the start of the next, as well as Euro 2004. Up until Vidić’s arrival, Ferdinand had played one half of a commanding central defence with numerous partners including Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Mikaël Silvestre. That all changed in January 2006.
The Serb arrived for a fee around £7m from Spartak Moscow, a pittance compared to the prices commanded by world-class centre-backs in the modern game. Vidić was a bargain, even if that wasn’t clear in his initial days at the time. United managed to steal him from under Fiorentina’s noses; a transfer to Florence had already been agreed, but their lack of a free non-EU spot on their roster allowed Ferguson to swoop in.
Assimilation into a squad mid-season is always difficult, though, especially when one arrives in a foreign country during winter. Vidić and fellow defensive reinforcement Patrice Evra had the blues but overcame them to become integral parts of Ferguson’s third and last great team in Manchester. It was a sign of things to come when Vidić graciously passed his League Cup medal to teammate Giuseppe Rossi.
While Vidić and Ferdinand played some minutes together in that half-season, the 2007/08 season would be the year the partnership was truly formed. Attributing the campaign’s success solely to them would be reductionist but they were part of a defence that conceded just 22 goals across 38 league games. This was only the start.
Their efforts on the European stage were significant. As United went unbeaten in their Champions League triumph, they conceded only six goals in 13 games. This was a defensive duo at the top of their game and, with the elegant Edwin van der Sar between the posts, this was a water-tight unit. United’s double came on the back of a cohesive team effort and the defence was a major part of it.
As the defending champions in the country and the continent, some expected standards to have fallen. But this was not the case. Competing in six competitions, United won the league, the League Cup as well as the Club World Cup. They made the semi-finals of the FA Cup while finished runners-up in the UEFA Super Cup, and fell only to a superior Barcelona in the Champions League. They would go on to record 1,331 minutes without conceding a goal at one stage of the campaign, in a 14-game streak that today remains every bit as stunning an achievement as it was at the time.
United kept 28 clean sheets in the league and the defensive duo were named in the PFA Team of the Year for the third season in a row. It was a three-year run of pure defensive brilliance, leading the team to an unprecedented succession of high standards across competitions. Unfortunately, it proved difficult to extend beyond 2009.
Ferdinand suffered an injury-plagued season in 2009/10, where he registered just 13 appearances in the league, and followed it up with 19 in the following season. It felt like that magical force was now spent and his collective influence with Vidić was on the wane. They were meant to be replaced by Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, the supposed heirs.
Vidić himself missed the majority of the 2011/12 season with a twisted knee. Both men found it in themselves to play a fair bit of Ferguson’s final season, albeit separately, earning a final Premier League medal. Ferdinand’s only goal of the season was the final goal of the Ferguson era and, just like that, the doors shut on a dynasty.
Ferdinand and Vidić’s own partnership lost its life, and was dulled by the tedium brought by David Moyes, who never trusted the duo together. As United tumbled to a seventh-place finish in the 2013/14 season, so did the fire that lit the partnership die out completely. They only started 15 games together in 2009/10, followed by 25, seven, 10 and 14 in their final year. Vidić, a cult hero and captain with a terrace song for himself, earned several standing ovations before moving on to Internazionale on a free transfer.
Ferdinand, on the other hand, moved with quiet recognition to Queens Park Rangers. It was the dying embers of both careers: Vidić played one further season before knee injuries forced his premature retirement in December 2016, while Ferdinand was used sparingly in their relegation season, announcing his own retirement afterwards. Neither greats were afforded the opportunity to depart on a high, a shame considering their individual achievements. But it made sense that they depart at the same time. There could be no other way.
There was no doubt that Manchester United defined the duo, shaping their careers and uniting two men with contrasting strengths to form a potent force. They were a perfect blend of silk and steel, finesse and aggression. Chelsea’s John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho could match their combined abilities, but they were covered by the world-class Claude Makélélé. Ferdinand and Vidić, by comparison, had no true holding midfielder covering them in the class of the Frenchman, with Michael Carrick a wholly different type of defensive midfielder. They didn’t need protection ahead of them.
The dynamic of their partnership was clear: Vidić was the bad cop, the aggressor, who wouldn’t be afraid to show you your place. He was hard in the tackle, strong in the air, willing to keep the ball away from the net no matter the consequence. Ferdinand was calmer, suaver presence, keeping his partner in check. His distribution and technical skills were excellent for a centre-back. But what stood out was that they were comfortable playing to the other’s strength too – Vidić could play the ball and Ferdinand was equally strong. It is that understanding which made them such a dominant force.
If their legacy needs further strengthening, it is the realisation that the duo have still to be replaced at Old Trafford. They have the defenders capable of filling their stylistic niches; Eric Bailly is very much the aggressive cult hero that the faithful love, while Victor Lindelof is a ball-player who could prosper given time. But Bailly’s been injured, Lindelof has not been given that time, and United’s travails at the back continue.
They long for the good old days of Vidić and Ferdinand, a time when defence was the best form of attack. Their disjointed squad could use the structure that the duo brought. Most of all, they require leadership, something the duo brought in abundance. That United miss Ferguson is all too obvious, but they certainly pine for the days of defensive stability.
Their places in the club’s hall of fame are secure but their legacy stretches beyond that. As a centre-back partnership, they made history and won trophies along the way. They defined the stylistic differences needed for a solid partnership, while proving that there was no one in their class for that period between 2006 to 2009. It made them the darlings of the club, United’s prized jewels that they and the fans were proud of.
As immovable forces, Vidić and Ferdinand can stake their claim to be one of the best defensive partnerships of all-time. Football, United and Ferguson were grateful to enjoy them at their peak, a rare blend of collective brilliance.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp