Manchester United can boast a full complement of fit defenders at the club with the return of Nemanja Vidic from injury this week. The Serbian is just one of many central defenders vying for a first team berth, leaving Sir Alex Ferguson with a selection quandary, which is a welcome problem considering the defensive injuries and struggles that United have had this season.
“Dour, uncompromising, a battler, a competitor” were some of the phrases boss Ferguson used recently to describe his Serbian captain. Nemanja Vidic is certainly a phenomenon, defending is just what he does. It was his warrior qualities that won him the Player of the Year award in 2009, and those same qualities are at the heart of his defensive performances that propelled Manchester United to numerous trophies with him at the back.
Simplistically, Vidic’s aerial ability, strength, and leadership are his outstanding attributes. Diminishing pace and long-term injuries are a concern, but should the 31 year-old recover to be his former-self he will continue to be a mighty asset to Manchester United, especially when you consider how much we missed him last season.
Ferdinand is the epitome of a modern-day centre half. He excels in calmness, ability on the ball, leadership, and a remarkable ability to read the game. His partnership with Vidic over recent years has been the bedrock for recent United success. Beset by injuries for the latter part of his career, Ferdinand also appears to have overcome those setbacks in the last couple of seasons.
The 34 year-old is an ageing player, and it is widely accepted that he has lost a yard of pace. Nevertheless, while he remains at the club his importance cannot be underestimated. His experience and composure is a lesson in leadership to the younger players around him, and his raw defensive qualities remain firmly intact. Perhaps an underrated player at this stage in his career, Ferdinand remains a world-class centre-back.
At 24, Jonny Evans, is one of United’s more youthful centre-back options. The Northern Irishman has grown immensely in stature over the last couple of years as a result of regular appearances. Unconvincing for the early part of his senior career, he has matured into a purposeful defender with growing influence and ability, and become an integral part of first-team plans.
Bringing the ball out of defence is a noticeable trait of Evans. His ability with the ball at his feet is impressive, and he adds another dimension to attack when breaking forward. He has also recently added goalscoring to his list of qualities, and looks a threat going forward for attacking set-pieces. Athletically, Evans is perhaps the least imposing of United’s main defensive options, but he is nonetheless developing into a solid, confident defender full of conviction and purpose.
Chris Smalling is possibly United’s most athletic centre-back. The young Englishman has a strength and pace that many would struggle to match. The 23 year-old is also tremendous in the air, making him an invaluable asset at defending and attacking aerial balls.
Coming from humble beginnings at Maidstone United and then Fulham, Smalling is inevitably somewhat raw in his football technique and decision-making. This means he can be sometimes lacking in assurance and composure in his duties, however his raw athleticism and power more than makes up for that. His versatility to also be able to play at right-back is another valuable quality for the youngster, and the team.
At 20, Phil Jones is one of the most exciting prospects in English football. Comparisons to Roy Keane and Duncan Edwards, even if prematurely, have been made and the potential is there to see. The confident youngster is purposeful with every stride, blessed with natural speed and strength, and full of passion and desire.
Youthful naivety has certainly not escaped Jones however, and some shaky performances at centre-back for United in the past are a reminder that he is not the finished article. His ability to play right-back and in midfield are a credit to his ability, as well as useful in garnering appearances to aid his development. Touted as a future captain, Jones is as exciting as they come. Still rough round the edges however, Jones is a player in the development phase, and needs time and patience.
The other options
Michael Carrick has filled in at centre-back on several occasions when others have been injured. Despite his composure and excellence on the ball, his defensive nous and physical attributes are lacking making him not ideal for the position. Scott Wootton, a product of the United youth academy, has impressed on his limited chances for the first-team, but inevitably falls short of the mark, particularly in terms of pace, and will probably move on soon. Michael Keane, another academy talent to gain first team appearances this season, has developed immensely over recent years, and at 19 is a good bet for a future Manchester United career.