Does he really have a future at Old Trafford?

Manchester United defender Rio FerdinandManchester United centre-back Rio Ferdinand has opened the door to a move to China recently, but after playing a more pivotal role than many would previously expected so far this season, does he still have a part to play at the club beyond the end of this season?

Having just turned 34 years of age this month, it’s clear that Ferdinand is fighting a losing battle against Father Time, and that he is destined to only go in one way now, but the speed of that decline coupled with the fact that he may not be assured of a regular starting place surely add up to a reduced role – would that be acceptable to the player in question?

There are plenty of defensive options within the United squad, but the problem Ferguson has had is keeping them all fit at once, and Michael Carrick has for the third successive season had to cover at centre-half on a couple of occasions. The strength in depth is there, as is the quality, with Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling all capable of playing there for a run of games, but the 70-year-old manager may deem carrying the former skipper for another season, given his recent injury struggles, a risk too far and the club have been rather understandably linked with a move for Borussia Dortmund man Mats Hummels as a result.

Ferguson sounded positive, telling reporters recently: “I think Rio can play for two or three more years. He is not as quick as he was but that is not a big issue for me. His experience is important and there is no reason he can’t stay on. I didn’t even realise his contract was up.”

Many have chosen to highlight the goal that Gareth Bale’s goal in Tottenham’s 3-2 victory at Old Trafford earlier on in the season was a sign of Ferdinand’s decline, where the Welsh winger stripped him for pace on the outside before arrowing a shot into the bottom left-hand corner.

There are a few factors to consider with this extreme example – firstly, the back four was left terribly exposed and the fact that Bale was allowed to travel so far without a single challenge was an indictment of how fragile the state of the team’s midfield currently is. Secondly, from a standing start, or a lightly jogging one going backwards at least, trying to track the run of one of the quickest players in the league is always going to be difficult and even Ferdinand at his peak would have struggled to match Bale’s pace and thirdly, Anders Lindegaard should have done a lot better to get down to the shot before it went in.

Nevertheless, the fact that Ferdinand may still see himself as able to contribute heavily to the side means he may not settle for a reduced role, which could hasten a lucrative move to either China or a return to his first ever professional club, West Ham. Ferguson will still have concerns about his fitness and despite a long-standing back condition that means Ferdinand has to be managed carefully, a factor which resulted in him losing the captaincy to Vidic, the centre-back does not consider it as big an issue and is intent on playing for as long as possible.

That Ferdinand has managed to feature in 10 of the club’s opening 12 league games this season would seem to strengthen the player’s argument for future inclusion and perhaps too much has been made of the fitness issue considering that he made 30 league appearances last term and 38 across all competitions. While others around him have dropped like flies, an apparently perma-crocked Ferdinand has been an almost ever-present, being rested for games like the one against Galatasaray in Europe, to ensure that he’s fit for the league game against QPR this weekend. If anything, Vidic remains more of a concern at the moment in terms of his overall fitness than Rio does.

When you take a closer look at the statistics gleaned from the campaign so far, Ferdinand has won 61% of his ‘duels’ on both the floor and in the air against the opposition, which compared to Evans 60% over seven games and Vidic’s 52% over four games stands up favourably.

The ever-changing nature of the back four due to injury, coupled with the needless continuation of a truly baffling goalkeeping rotation policy has meant that United have kept just two clean sheets this term, conceding 17 goals in 12 games, a record which 11 teams have bettered so far and they’ve had to be bailed out time and time again by an exceptional forward line.

However, along with Rafael, Ferdinand has been perhaps the most consistent member in that back five unit this season and to get rid of him in the summer would represent a significant weakening of the squad, particularly in terms of experience, with both Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes coming to the end of their respective careers.

The lure of pursuing someone like Hummels is obvious and understandable because he represents a viable long-term successor to the former England international, but there’s been no noticeable decline as of yet in his game and he’s still playing a key role. Should he carry on in the same vein right through to the end of the campaign, United would be foolish to even consider letting him go based on ‘what if’ as opposed to the evidence before their very eyes.

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