Great partnerships, whether in attack or defence, are hard to come by in football. It’s either one of the two failing to adapt to conditions around them – through either a lack of talent or a lack of adaptability – or a failed experiment by the man at the helm. But some work out perfectly and shape the long-term future and success of a side. One such duo, Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, came to be in England with Manchester United and were the backbone of their success for eight years. Their dominance began in 2006 when the Serb arrived at the club from Spartak Moscow and would end in 2014 when they both went their separate ways after nearly a decade together at the top.
Robin van Persie was asked during a press conference describe ‘Nemanja Vidic’.He said :
‘Vida puts his head where others are scared to put their feet’.
That’s the easiest way of defining Nemanja Vidic. Sir Alex Ferguson called him his greatest warrior and one of the best pieces of business he did from Spartak Moscow.Signed for just 7million pounds on a January transfer eyes did roll when he chose United over Fiorentina and specially Sir Alex Ferguson was questioned why did he bring a centre back of unknown quality and just on the basis of 2006 FIFA qualification. Nemanja Vidic had put a stellar display where he and the fabled back 4 of Serbia conceded one single goal.
It wasn’t until the start of the 2006-07 season that he would team up with Rio Ferdinand at the back, and they would make the sternest of partnerships in European football. Having seen Mourinho’s Chelsea dominate the Premier League scene for the two seasons prior, Ferdinand and Vidić’s chemistry together would help the Red Devils launch a title challenge as well as reach the semi-finals of the Champions League and finish as runners-up in the FA Cup. Their astonishing defensive contribution saw them concede just 27 league goals, and the blossoming attacking talent of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo saw them firing goals left right and centre.
Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar had his often exceptional work made easy with the two centre-backs in front, as well as the ever present full-backs around him, Gary Neville and Patrice Evra, all of whom made it onto the PFA Premier League Team of the Season that year. However, if that season was brilliant, the next was even better.
The 2007-08 season saw Ferdinand and Vidić become the most frequent names on the United team sheet. Amassing 41 starts together across all competitions, their statistics were more miserly than ever. Ferdinand also had the opportunity to take the captain’s armband due to Gary Neville’s injury problems, which forced him to make just one substitute appearance all season.
Having retained the Premier League title in emphatic fashion, conceding just 22 goals and having a goal difference of +58 – the second highest in Premier League history, behind Chelsea’s +71 two years later – the pair also retained their spot on the PFA’s Team of the Season and had greater success on the grandest platform.
It was on the European stage where United put the gloss on their season as they beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow after an enthralling game and a dominant season where they put the likes of Barcelona, Roma and Lyon to the sword, conceding just six goals in 13 games. Their magnificence at the back earned them high praise from around the footballing world and they were staking their claim to be one of the greatest defensive duos in the sport’s history.
Club legend Sir Bobby Charlton, who rose from the ashes to see the club go from strength to strength following the horror of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, has seen some fine pairings at the club but regards Ferdinand and Vidić as the greatest defensive pairing in the history of the club, even ahead of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, who won a number of honours during the 1990s. He said in an interview in 2011 :
“We’ve had some magnificent centre-halves down the years, but these two [Ferdinand and Vidić] form the most formidable pairing of all.”
They were the silk and steel of the side, with Ferdinand the former and Vidić the latter. Ferdinand was a calm figure, a smart ball-playing central defender who had the elegance to make him one of the best of his generation, while Vidić was the enforcer, the man who would take no nonsense and whose aggression, timing, tackling and aerial skills were in a league of their own. The two complemented each other and together they were the perfect pairing when fit.
Fernando Torres – Liverpool’s Number 9
In the spring of 2009, however, the cracks started to show. After their record-breaking run, title rivals and old nemesis Liverpool came to Old Trafford in a bid to claim top spot in the league. After taking the lead through a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the first half, the stage looked set for United to seal a 12th successive league win. But just eight minutes later, Fernando Torres’ high pressing and eagerness forced Vidić into losing concentration and letting the Spaniard free to equalise.
Patrice Evra’s foul on Steven Gerrard in the penalty box just minutes before the interval allowed the Reds to take the lead from the spot, before Vidić, who endured a horror afternoon, was sent off for pulling down the Liverpool captain while he was on his way to goal. Ferdinand was helpless after that as Fábio Aurélio would score from the resultant free-kick and add a fourth just before the end after a lapse in concentration from the United back line.
The result did, however, just prove to be a blip in a supreme title challenge as their lead at the top was never in much doubt. They would win the league with a four-point gap over Liverpool to add to their League Cup success, and would again see Vidić and Ferdinand earn spots on the PFA Team of the Season, as well as individual nominations for the PFA’s Player of the Year award to honour their immaculate efforts for the club over the course of that season.
United lost the 2009-10 league title to a free-scoring Chelsea but would retain it just a year later, where Vidić would captain the side and also become the Premier League’s Player of the Year, despite the fact that his partner-in-crime was often absent. If United fans hoped for an unabated run in the team for the two during the 2011-12 season, they would be left disappointed. Their captain picked up a career-threatening knee injury in a crucial Champions League game in Basel and his absence was felt around the club as they would hand over their title to local rivals Manchester City and finish the season without a major honour for the first time since 2002.
Vidić announced his departure to Inter Milan in February 2014 while Ferdinand completed the 2013-14 campaign before being let go by new boss Louis van Gaal to join his former manager Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers. They played their final game together under interim coach Ryan Giggs away at Southampton and received rapturous applause from the United faithful who made the trip to the south coast that afternoon.
After a combined 20 seasons, 755 appearances and 10 major honours, Manchester United said goodbye to a partnership that can be ranked alongside the very best in the game’s history. Classy and powerful at the peak of their powers between 2006 and 2009, they join an illustrious club that contains great duos like AC Milan’s Baresi and Maldini of the 1990s, the Picchi-Burgnich of the Grande Inter era in the 1960s, Piqué and Puyol at Barcelona and a select few others.