Undoubtedly perturbed by his side’s failure to clinch a fourth successive Premier League crown, it’s likely that Sir Alex Ferguson will have a few things on his mind this summer. In assessing a defence that was leakier than his backline of the previous term (36 league goals conceded in 09/10, compared to 24 in 08/09), Ferguson will certainly bemoan the continued absences of England captain Rio Ferdinand. Having started just 12 Premier League games last season and a total of 36 over the course of the last two campaigns, serious doubts have emerged over the long-term future of the sometime Manchester United skipper.
Unquestionably first-choice when fully-fit for both club and country, the former West Ham United man has also been irritated by his fight with fitness over the past two years, admitting to the Daily Mail that “It’s been frustrating with the injury – it’s been stop-start all through the season. It’s not really the way you want things to go. I’ve never really had any serious injuries until the last 18 months. It’s hard to deal with, frustrating, but you’ve got to get on with it.”
Ferdinand’s injuries have had an adverse affect on Manchester United’s defence, with Sir Alex Ferguson forced to field a number of different centre-back partnerships, playing seven different players at centre-back over the course of the season. Most notably, United’s injury woes reached a nadir last winter when Ferguson was infamously forced to field a back three comprising of two midfielders, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, and the inexperienced Belgian Ritchie de Laet in their 3-0 defeat at Fulham. Whilst this anomalous situation was the culmination of several defensive injuries at the club, it is the England skipper’s absences that have prevented Sir Alex Ferguson from regularly fielding his first choice centre-back pairing of Ferdinand and Serbia international Nemanja Vidić, a lauded partnership considered by many to be impenetrable.
The Manchester United manager will be looking to have this situation resolved by the start of next season, but the question is whether he will place faith in the ability of Ferdinand to remain fit or whether he will look to bring in defensive reinforcements. The rumour mill of late has not linked the Old Trafford side with any defensive acquisitions this summer, suggesting that Sir Alex may be satisfied with the players he has at his disposal. In addition to possessing recognised out-and-out centre-backs Ferdinand, Vidić and Jonny Evans, versatile full-backs Wes Brown, Ritchie de Laet, Gary Neville and John O’Shea are all capable of performing in the middle. The astute among you will also remember that Fulham defender Chris Smalling is set to join the Old Trafford side this summer, with the two clubs having agreed a £10m fee for the 20-year-old’s services in January of this year.
The problem with this batch of players in the absence of Vidić and/or Ferdinand, is the lack of experience and dearth of orthodox central defenders. Smalling and de Laet have a combined total of 16 top flight appearances between them; being forced to field the pair of them in a crucial game next season is surely a situation that Ferguson would seek to avoid. Whilst Ferdinand has optimistically stated that the worst of his injury problems are now behind him, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to start a sufficient number of games next season. The persistent nature of his back problems would suggest that the nature of the injury is chronic, and as such, likely to rear its ugly head repeatedly over the course of the next few years. Factor in the repeated murmurs of Vidić’s alleged desire to exit Old Trafford and it becomes increasingly unlikely that United’s preferred centre-back pairing will feature regularly in tandem next season.
The shuffling nature of United’s centre-back formations last season often resulted in a lack of consistency and assuredness in a position where such virtues are a must. Some have even suggested that Manchester United would’ve finished top of the league had they been able to field a more settled back four over the course of the last ten months. Sir Alex will be looking to ensure that this isn’t the case again next term, and in the opinion of this writer, would be wise to consider bringing in a proven, quality centre-back to augment any potential defensive difficulties.
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