Central defensive partnerships are perhaps the most important thing for any team to get right.
The modern game may frown upon emphasising defensive organisation and solidity too much, with managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp achieving success thanks to more holistic approaches to their team’s defensive structures, things like pressing from the front and moving together as a whole team, but partnerships at the back are crucial. But it’s not just down to defensive organisation, it’s also about team balance.
For top teams, making sure that there’s a balance between physicality, technical ability and creativity is important, and even at centre back that rings true. It’s not all about having top defenders, it’s also about having top footballers, who read the game in attacking as well as defensive senses, and who can start attacks from the back.
A ball-player and a covering hard man usually do the trick, and few partnerships have ever been quite so balance as Manchester United’s noughties pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
Bought for a British record transfer fee, Ferdinand arrived at Manchester United with a growing reputation, but it was his ability on the ball that stood out the most. Sure, he was big and strong, his positional play was good, and potentially could have been a threat from corners, too – though didn’t score a lot of goals. But perhaps the most impressive thing about Ferdinand was that, for an English centre back, he wasn’t afraid of having possession of the ball.
Indeed, when United bought Ferdinand in 2002, their greatest success had just come three years earlier, when Alex Ferguson’s side won the treble. Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen was the pairing who took over from Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, who had dominated the Premier League in the 1990s, but who had been unable to conquer Europe. It seemed as though the foreign pairing brought an extra dimension to United’s play by allowing the team to build from the back.
It was a similar partnership for what was to come later: Johnsen was skilled enough in possession to play as a defensive midfielder for United on occasion, whilst Stam is today remembered as one of the hardest centre-backs in footballing history – and not just in England.
In 2006, United signed Vidic, and his partnership seemed to continue the lineage that Stam and Johnsen set in 1999. Between them, the Serbian and the Englishman five Premier League titles, three League Cups and were also successful in Europe, winning one Champions League title, but losing twice in the final to a freakish Barcelona side managed by Pep Guardiola. In that sense, they were just unlucky to be playing at the same time as one of the best club sides in history.
In terms of trophies, though, it does stand out strangely that United did not manage to win an FA Cup in the years Ferdinand and Vidic played at centre-back. Neither had an FA Cup medal – Vidic because he didn’t play for a victorious United side, and Ferdinand as his ban for missing a drugs test in 2003 came during the only season when United won the cup whilst the former England man was still on the books. It’s the odd stat which stands out, because whilst some would argue that they were the best partnership in English football history, they never won the oldest football competition in the world.
Perhaps, though, that just shows how Alex Ferguson’s side in the noughties had bigger fish to fry. With Ferdinand and Vidic, just like with Stam and Johnsen before them, the Champions League was not out of reach for the Old Trafford side. That they could compete with the glamorous teams around the continent not just for heart and industry, but for skill, too.
And for English football’s transition from an unfashionable league in the late 1980s and early 90s, to the powerhouse of the Premier League with teams capable of winning continental competitions, the ability to marry a silky centre-back in Ferdinand with one who could do the dirty work, like Vidic, was vital to the cause.