It’s an old footballing adije. One that holds a lot of truth even today.
Having the ability to score plenty of goals is a powerful weapon...but in the end it can only carry a team so far. Because over the course of a season there are games where attempting to out score an opponent alone will fail to bring success. At some point the need to prevent a defensive meltdown is the only way to win the game’s biggest prizes.
Across the vast history of football there are certain defensive partnerships who will forever be immortalised. Particular pairings that were both individually brilliant and when working in tandem seemed near invincible.
There have been some classic Centre Back duos over the years.
In the Premier League era Tony Adams and Martin Keown come to mind. Both players were rugged, tenacious and uncompromising. Or perhaps the bedrock of Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team in John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. The Englishman considered one of the finest ball playing defenders his country has produced whilst the Portgugese was a slick and stylish harasser.
Memories of United’s very own nineties legends in Bruce and Pallister. One a stocky ball winner and the other a more graceful carrier of the ball. Even legendary international pairs like AC Milan’s Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta.
But why is forming such a solid partnership in the centre of defence in particular so vital to a team’s overall success?
Centre Backs quietly command and control the game, often understated is the way they build attacks and even dictate the pace of the game. More obviously they form the last line of defence after the opposition have cut through wider channels or drive towards the middle of the penalty area.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are one of the most memorable Centre Back pairings in a generation. Each man possessing individual brilliance whilst complementing the other’s skill set to function in defensive harmony.
But when comparing the two United greats….who was better?
“I tipped him at 16 to be the greatest centre-half in Europe. I think for a time that is exactly what he was.”
Rio Ferdinand rapidly progressed through the ranks at West Ham United to make his senior debut in the summer of 1996. The Englishman quickly became a fan favourite and the following season became ‘Hammer of the Year’ showing incredible promise for such a young player.
His quality was quickly recognised by the England national side, earning his first International cap in 1997 against Cameroon and setting a new record for the youngest player to ever play for his country.
In 2000 Ferdinand decided to advance his career by agreeing to join Leeds United for a then British record transfer fee of £18 million. The Yorkshire side saw great value in youth, rapidly establishing themselves and beginning to rival the bigger teams of the English game.
Ferdinand settled quickly at his new club, evolving into a vital part of an exciting Leeds team, who remarkably reached the semi-finals of the Champions League at the first time of asking. The Englishman was promoted to club captain the next season in 2001 following the retirement of Lucas Radebe.
After a number of accomplished displays at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, substantial rumours began to circulate of Leeds financial troubles and a need to sell their now star Centre Back.
It was of no surprise that they accepted Manchester United’s £29.3 million bid for Ferdinand later that summer.
Ferdinand’s Centre Back Pairings
The season before Ferdinand’s arrival at Old Trafford, the club were at a relative low point.
Having conceded the League title to a ruthless Arsenal side, United finished trophyless for the first time in 1998. More worryingly the side conceded 45 goals in the process with a low return in attack.
The Englishman’s first defensive partner at United was Laurent Blanc.
Although the former French Captain was gifted, he was aging and entering the twilight of his career. Still, alongside their new signing, there was a reliable look to United’s central defence, and it clearly had an immediate impact. Ferdinand picked up his first Premier League title and United conceded eleven less goals than the previous campaign.
However the following campaign saw him face a set back. In January 2003 Ferdinand faced an eight month drugs ban. As a result both Michael Silverstre and Wes Brown found themselves with increased game time during the second half of the season.
Despite his absence United managed to win the FA cup.
It was upon his return that the influence of Ferdinand’s long lasting organisation and leadership began to emerge. During the 2004/2005 the English International found himself paired with Gabriel Heinze for large portions of the season; which again ended without silverware after the dominance of Mourinho’s Chelsea.
But United conceded only 26 goals in the League that season.
It was a sign of things to come. A solid foundation to build upon.
Ferdinand just needed the right partner.
There were many incredible centre backs across Europe at the turn of 2006.
The likes of Barcelona’s Carles Puyol, French international Lillan Thuram or soon to be World Cup Champion and Ballon D’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro.
But with the need to bolster his central defence, Alex Ferguson chose a signing that many wouldn’t have expected, an unknown entity he had been keen to bring to Old Trafford since the summer of 2003.
As Christmas approached United were having a productive 2005/2006 season and by its mid-point were forming a decent title challenge. Ferdinand had successfully formed a solid bond with Michael Silvestre and to a lesser extent Wes Brown.
Yet the team would still end the season having conceded 38 goals. It was a total that Ferguson knew all too well would prove detrimental to any Premier League title. Especially with current Champions Chelsea scoring for fun, defensively impenetrable and stream rolling towards two successive League titles.
Finally United unveiled their second signing of the Winter transfer window; having presented Patrice Evra five days before.
Nemenja Vidic was far from a household name.
The former Spartak Moscow and Serbian International arrived at Old Trafford for a modest fee of £7 million. The average United fan had to admit they’d never even heard of their latest recruit.
Within three weeks Ferguson handed Vidic his United debut.
To begin with the Serbian found himself having to share centre back responsibilities with Silvestre and Brown with Ferdinand the only mainstay for the entire campaign. In his first five months Vidic made a mediocre fifteen appearances across all competitions.
Most importantly a solidity in United’s backline was quickly developing.
It was most evident in the club’s strong finish to the season - again beaten to top spot by Chelsea. But there was promise because United registered a total of 83 points; their best performance since the previous title win three years prior.
Encouragingly there was also Silverware to speak of. United claimed the League Cup with a fairly routine 4-0 victory over Championship side Wigan Athletic.
Birth Of A Partnership
Significantly the following 2006/07 season saw Vidic establish himself as a regular starter.
The Serbian made nearly forty appearances in total and most with Ferdinand by his side as Ferguson’s previous ‘go to’ Silvestre found himself more regularly amongst the substitutes.
His partnership with Ferdinand started to gain momentum and during that season both fans and pundits were given a glimpse of the greatness to come.
United conceded just 27 goals - their lowest total since 2003 and as a result winning their first Premier League title after a drought of four years.
Why They Worked So Well Together
Many clubs possess a talented centre back. But to have a pair of fantastic central defenders that strike up an effective bond is almost priceless. And when it happens; there is often success and silverware on the horizon.
On the most basic of levels, Ferdinand and Vidic are incredibly similar; both players were towering figures, strong aerially with superb positional awareness.
But there are subtle differences in their game too.
“Rio has been the best defender in the country if not Europe for a couple of years. His maturity and leadership have been key factors in the team’s success. He is someone that young players learn from and that more experienced players respect.”
Ferdinand was described as a ‘Rolls Royce’ defender.
More graceful than his centre back partner, able to confidently carry the ball from deeper areas and advance into the opponent’s half to great effect. Vidic was still reasonably comfortable on the ball but favoured simple passing to find a more creative teammate.
Both players had fantastic heading technique. However Ferdinand would rely heavily on anticipation, positioning himself correctly so that he could clear the ball with minimal fuss. Vidic was far more aggressive, using strength to bully the opposition and throwing his entire body at the attacker to block any threat.
The Serbian was also the deadliest in front of goal. Whilst Ferdinand registered eight goals during his twelve years at Old Trafford; Vidic scored an impressive twenty one times in just eight campaigns.
Their defensive unity went from strength to strength and over the next few seasons flourished into arguably the best centre back duo in European Football.
The 2007/08 season was undoubtedly seen as the pinnacle of their time together.
“He was a great player, without a doubt the best centre-half I ever played with. I would say for a time as well he was the best centre-half in the world. He was such a pleasure to play with and play in front of. To play in front of him, he made your job so easy.”
A defensive highlight included keeping six clean sheets in a row during the early part of the campaign. United secured back to back League titles, a feat not achieved since 2001 and won the club’s third European Cup - their first Champions League honour in nearly a decade.
Ferdinand captained the side that night in Moscow. A special person moment.
Comparing Defensive Strengths
As is always the case when drawing comparisons between top class players, discussing who is the better of the two, it is the finer details of their games that help to determine which is the greater overall.
To analyse the merits of a defender - we are considering five key areas….
● Technical ability
● Reading of the game
● Attacking threat
Technical ability has the largest area of discussion.
Because it is the most complex. When assessing a defender’s technique it is important to consider how effective he is in terms of the modern game alongside the traditional features of the defensive game. Long gone are the days where a centre back relies purely upon grit and determination without the need for control or vision.
Whilst Vidic was technically gifted as a defender; a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked in the slightest, Ferdinand was superior in terms of playing ability and general technique.
“Now the position of the centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession. This is something that 10 years ago in England they didn’t understand. Rio was the first one who did it.”
The Englishman was elegant and graceful in possession, a skilled distributor with traits of original celebrated sweeper types from bygone eras like Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer.
This skill set was not without negative backlash.
Ferdinand was regularly criticised for poor decision making and taking risks that resulted in costly mistakes. He was especially guilty of this during his youth however this weakness lessened considerably with age and experience.
Vidic is rarely described as having technical finesse. But this is somewhat inaccurate.
While defending technique is often less celebrated than other footballing skills, his ability defensively displays a sublime awareness of his roles and responsibilities, even if less glamorous or easy on the eye.
A player’s speed has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
Years ago a defender’s lack of pace was less of a weakness. There were a smaller number of attackers possessing speed to cause defenders issues, whereas more and more in today’s game, players are very athletic and able to move across the ground quickly.
Pace has become a huge asset for a defender.
In his youth Ferdinand had fantastic pace. His height and leg length meant that he was able to generate great speed to match some of the world's quickest offensive talents. Due to injury and age, the Englishman’s pace reduced considerably later in his career, forcing him to improve his positional play and awareness.
Vidic never had pace to speak of. Not that the Serbian was particularly slow. But not having to rely on speed was evident in Vidic’s game, based more around a good starting position and the formation of a solid defensive line where opponent’s rarely had the space to run into.
Reading Of The Game
The way in which Ferdinand read the game developed slowly over time. In his younger years he favoured flair and creativity over highly accurate position play. However by the time he’d established himself as Leeds Captain, and his eventual move to Old Trafford, the Englishman’s overall sense for danger had increased dramatically.
Vidic read the game expertly. From the moment he arrived in Manchester it was seen as one of his greatest strengths. The Serbian had finely tuned ability to position himself in the right place, ready to make a tackle or headed clearance.
“Vida, simply the best out and out defender I’ve seen. Aggression and desire to win at all costs, scared centre forwards to death!”
Rio Ferdinand wasn’t known for his aggressive nature. Instead the defender remained generally placid and calculated. In stark contrast Vidic was simply the ‘no nonsense’ type; physically dominant and brave in the tackle. Of the two players - the Serbian was more comparable to an old fashioned and style centre back.
In terms of goal scoring it was Vidic who found the net more times.
Vidic was highly effective in the opponent’s penalty area, scoring 15 of his 18 career goals via headers and another three with his feet. Ferdinand found the net with his feet and head in equal amounts; one of his most memorable goals - a right footed screamer into the top corner against Liverpool in 2007.
Both players displayed great quality well into their thirties.
Ferdinand was the more injury prone of the pair. From 2009 to 2011 he missed a significant number of games across nearly two seasons and as a result slowly lost some of his pace.
“How Vidic didn’t win Player of the Year in 2010-11 is beyond me. He was easily the most consistent, influential player in the league.”
Vidic was generally ever present, especially vital in helping United in the League again in 2010/11 - where he made 47 appearances and recorded his best ever goal tally in a season with five.
The pair’s last great season together came in 2012/13.
Whilst United weren’t as defensively sound, Ferdinand and Vidic formed a stable foundation along with high flying Robin Van Persie as the club claimed Fergsuon’s last trophy in his final season at Old Trafford.
Ferdinand even managed to score the winning goal in the Scot’s final home game against Swansea City.
Hanging Up Their Boots
It is often suggested that both Ferdinand and Vidic should have left United in the summer of 2013 after Ferguson’s departure. The appointment of David Moyes saw a dramatic decline in the fortunes of the club.
Following a seventh place finish it was finally time for both defenders to make their exits.
Ferdinand decided to join Queens Park Rangers for one season before announcing his retirement in 2015 whilst Vidic moved to Italy and signed for Inter Milan - after 18 months he too called time on his career in early 2016.
Life After Rio And Vidic
Over the next few seasons, despite regularly delving into the transfer market, United failed to find the ideal centre back pairing.
The likes of Chris Smalling, Marcus Rojo and even Daley Blind all shared the role during Louis Van Gaal’s reign but with mixed results. All three lacked the sheer presence and ability of their predecessors.
Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof both featured for Jose Mourinho and later Ole Gunnar Solskjaer too along with the £80 million acquisition of the often faltering and inconsistent Harry Maguire. The two often brought some level of stability to United’s defence but in comparison to Ferdinand and Vidic lacked the consistency at the highest level.
Yet there is hope. Under Erik Ten Haag's guidance and control over player recruitment, Rafael Varane and Lisandro Martinez have emerged as perhaps the most experienced, classy and dependable centre back pairing Old Trafford has seen for nearly a decade.
Who Was Better?
Overall Ferdinand was a better player than Vidic. In terms of technical ability and pace he was superior to the Serbian. Vidic was the greater all round defender, a master at reading the game combined with a mixture of aggression and bravery. He was also a greater aerial threat and scored more goals during his career. Ferdinand was a graceful ball playing defender often compared to old fashioned sweepers like Bobby Moore or Franz Beckenbauer.
Ferdinand and Vidic were at their greatest together. Two outstanding individual talents who side by side were near perfect. A combination of centre backs amongst the greatest the game has ever witnessed.