SO LONG, FAREWELL, NEMANJA
Friday morning saw the sad, but not entirely surprising, news that Nemanja Vidic would be leaving Manchester United at the end of the 2013/2014 season having agreed not to sign a new contract. There have long been whispers, leaked through Vidic’s agent to the worldwide press, that the player was seeking a move away from Old Trafford and United’s official statement on the matter confirmed many a fan’s worst fear.
An undeniable defensive colossus and one of the club’s best-ever centre-backs, Vidic’s arrival along with Patrice Evra in January of 2005 was actually met with much scepticism. A disastrous debut resulted in a 4-1 loss away at Manchester City and eyes were raised at whether the two would ever be able to adapt to the demands of the English game. Fast forward nine years and every single one of those doubts has been eradicated: with five Premier League titles, five Community Shields, three League Cups, a Champions League and a Club World Cup in Vidic’s own personal trophy collection. Fifteen in total is not bad going at all.
The long-time rock of the Manchester United back four and in recent years, club captain, Vidic’s loss will be felt both on the pitch and off it. United lose an inspiring, fearless role model; an effective, no-nonsense communicator; and, above all, someone who simply knows what they are doing in the defensive third. Excellent technically and positionally, it is often Vidic who clatters an opposing forward just before he can get a shot away, or whose head gets on the end of a menacing set piece delivery to help avert any danger. He has even been known to throw himself head first in the way of ball or man, and that sums the man up. Whatever the cost – that ball was not going to threaten the goal when Vidic was around. His mantra? No fear, no problem. No pain, no gain.
Vidic’s finest hour was probably back in Moscow in May 2008. He was magnificent in a tension-filled Champions League final, with imposing command in the air and on the ground with such attention to detail in every movement. His unwavering attention drove Chelsea’s Didier Drogba to an unusual and uncharacteristic self-combustion: the result of being battered and bettered by as fine a defender as he ever encountered. Vidic didn’t lift the trophy that night, as the honour went to captain on the night Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs. But his contribution to its red ribbons that night was greater than any.
The mention of Ferdinand is of course an apt one. In years gone by, rarely would a sentence or interview mention one name and not the other. The Ferdinand-Vidic axis was in place consistently from 2006 to 2012 barring injuries and United always looked all the better for its presence on the pitch. It surely rivals, or depending on who you ask, usurps the Bruce-Pallister partnership of the 90s, and of course it was the foundation stone of Edwin van der Sar’s world record of 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal early in 2009. As able a ‘keeper as the Dutchman was, the protection he was given by Ferdinand and Vidic deserved much of the credit too.
Languid as he is, Ferdinand was quick and, by and large, could cover Vidic’s slight lack of pace, while Vidic’s intensity helped keep Ferdinand’s famously lax concentration in check. For a time they were the best central defensive partnership in the Premier League and perhaps the world. That will probably be most United fans’ abiding memory of the man: one of the best on the planet. Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have a lot to live up to in the coming years, but they will all surely have benefited from Vidic’s tutelage in their years understudying him at the highest level.
The next question is how do United go about replacing someone who is as irreplaceable as they come in the footballing world. A dream, but not like-for-like, replacement would probably be a Dante from Bayern Munich, or a Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund. Eliaquim Mangala from Porto is being chased by many clubs in Europe and United would have to fight their Manchester neighbours for his signature, too. Ezequiel Garay has long been linked with Manchester United and is another option, but David Moyes is supposedly not as a big a fan as Sir Alex Ferguson was.
Names also in the hat are Inigo Martinez of Real Sociedad and Dejan Lovren who has been a revelation for Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton. Personally, I would be surprised if David Moyes did not sign a central defender in the summer given that Rio Ferdinand may retire also and leave the club short at the back. He could do with an experienced figure to help nurture and the three young centre backs in the squad currently, and I think that is what we will end up seeing.
But that is for the future, and in the here and now, and the next three or four months, United fans need to cherish every time that Nemanja Vidic pulls on a red shirt and leads out the team. Every unforgiving tackle, block, clearance and interception. We may never see his like again in the red half of Manchester. Wherever Vidic ends up – thought to be Milan at this stage given early pre-emptive negotiations – they will be all the better for his name on their team-sheet. And of course, United will be forever poorer for the lack of the Serbian at Old Trafford.