Rio Ferdinand : Tribute to Rolls Royce of Manchester United

mu-manchester-united-red-4794“Excellence,” wrote Greek philosopher Aristotle, “is an art won by training.” Indeed, this is a doctrine held true by many in the game for whom hard work and a little talent has brought ample reward. Rio Ferdinand trained hard too; a professional to the last. Yet, he also boasted such a natural elegance on the pitch that it was often hard to hard to tell where the work finished and the talent began.

There have been times over the past decade when Rio Ferdinand seemed destined for anything but a lengthy stay at Old Trafford. It has been a journey from a £30 million transfer in July 2002, through a controversial ban and subsequent contract re-negotiation, to genuine – well almost – respect on the terraces. After all, while the Londoner’s way  has not always found favour among the faithful, he has absolutely been Manchester United’s finest defender for 10 years or more.

Time flies and Ferdinand’s run at United ended with a transfer to QPR. It has been a career not without controversy, conflict or, on occasion, the unfair hand of the Football Association. He has been the subject of partizan vitriol, media scepticism and, latterly, terrace racism. And the third estate, so keen to lap up Steven Gerrard’s long walk to Los Angeles, has let Ferdinand slip into retirement with little fanfare. Yet, he is also a player that should be remembered, at his zenith, as the best central defender on the planet. Made better for the partnership with Nemanja Vidic, United’s other outstanding centre-half. Critics be dammed.

Ferdinand joined Ferguson’s squad from Leeds United in 2002, with the Whites on the precipice of financial meltdown. The fee included a basic sum of £20 million, with add-ons and agent fees taking the cost to more than £30 million. The defender made his debut alongside Laurent Blanc in United’s 5-0 demolition of Zalaegerszeg in the Champions League Second Qualifying Round and earned a Premier League winners medal the following May. The first of many trophies at United.

Always classy with the ball at his feet, Ferdinand had gained a reputation for switching off during 158 matches at West Ham United and 73 more at Leeds. More than 450 games for United later and that penchant for errors was almost entirely eradicated from his game.

Ferdinand’s transfer to United was five years in the making. Ferguson first spotted 17-year-old Ferdinand playing for a Bournemouth team managed by friend Mel Machin in 1997. The defender spent 10 games on the south coast, with the Hammers subsequently rejecting two United bids for the player.

Ferdinand left Old Trafford in the summer of 2014 boasting six Premier League titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, a Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, six Community Shields and the FIFA Club World Cup. Potential fulfilled over an outstanding career.

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.

Ferdinand has not always enjoyed the good times at United. Little more than a year after his arrival the player failed to attend a routine drug test. Despite being familiar with the routines of drug testing, Ferdinand left United’s training ground at Carrington for a shopping session in town, missing his slot and only later attempting to correct the mistake. The FA Disciplinary Committee imposed an eight-month ban and a £50,000 fine, with the player missing much of the 2003/4 season and Euro 2004.

It is an episode that still reflects poorly on the player, for failing to attend, the club, for not keeping closer tabs on a £30 million asset, and the FA’s drug-testers for dogmatically refusing to allow Ferdinand to take his test later that day. Indeed, the player took and passed a test the following day, with an offer for a hair follicle exam turned down by the FA. The triumph of process over common sense.

Years later Ferguson wrote that his “indignation endures to this day” after the testers failed to “do their job” and the FA handed down a “brutal punishment” to the defender. Not least because the FA committee failed to accept any mitigation, including the case of Manchester City’s Christian Negouai who was fined just £2,000 for missing a test the season previously.

The politicisation of the case did not help, with both FIFA President Sepp Blatter and World Anti-Doping Agency seeking a longer punishment despite the seemingly innocent nature of Ferdinand’s error.

vidic-ferdinand

Meanwhile, on the international stage, Rio’s love for England was never quite as firmly reciprocated, despite the player’s 81 caps. In all he missed four tournaments: Euro 2000, Euro 2004, Euro 2008 – when England failed to qualify – and Euro 2012. The FA’s handling of the 2004 ban and, later, Fabio Capello’s controversial decision to sack Ferdinand as captain in favour of the racist John Terry still rankles with the player and supporters.

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.

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.

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.

hdr-photography-manchester-united-rio-2818225-1920x1080

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.

 

Advertisements

Nemanja “Monster” Matic : Already looks like steal of the summer

‘Whoever made the decision at Chelsea to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United needs sacking,’ -Phil Neville.

Matic made a £40m move north during the transfer window, and has settled in quickly at United to bring a much more balanced approach to their midfield when sat alongside Paul Pogba, who is able to venture forward much more as his Serbian teammate protects the back four.

02

Excitement was never the point. In Matić, Mourinho bought control, sensible but active passing, and sound defensive instincts that serve to bolster both United’s back four and the team’s attack. Matic was not sexy, never flash, with a turn of pace that is only a touch better than pedestrian, Matić rarely serves to set the pulses racing. Compared to summer alternatives, such as Monaco’s Fabinho, few Reds were actively excited about Matić’s imminent arrival.

After all, there was always the sense that Mourinho needed to feel secure at the back to “let the horses run freely” up front. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have been the major beneficiaries, with the Frenchman liberated to play from box-to-box and the Armenian enjoying his new role as the team’s dynamic number 10.

 

Mourinho on the pitch

“He was an essential player because he spoke to me a great deal, and he liked to understand the practices, the whys and wherefores.”

Jose Mourinho would go on to describe Costinha as “a vital player”, one who “would convey my ideas on the pitch” as he stood on the touchline. “Costinha would basically be my ‘assistant coach’.”

They say you never forget your first. The Portuguese was speaking in late 2004 at the beginning of his rise to prominence, but success has not changed him; his love for a defensive midfielder remains as strong as ever.

At Porto it was Costinha. At Chelsea it was Claude Makelele, his “tactical leader”. At Inter Milan it was Esteban Cambiasso, “one of the fastest players I have ever coached”, but only “where speed is needed most”. At Real Madrid it was Xabi Alonso, “a coach when he is on the field”. Each were “strong”, each were “stable”, and each were the pivot around which Mourinho built his most dominant sides.

01

The Portuguese has afforded space in his little black book for a select few players; only once has he sought to relight the flame of a previously prosperous relationship. Nemanja Matic was the calming influence as Chelsea returned the Premier League title to Stamford Bridge in 2015. Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were a holy trinity of attacking craft, guile and brutality, but Matic was the insurance. No teammate made more than his 3.6 tackles, 2.2 dribbles or two interceptions per game that season.

So it has proved. No United player has made more tackles (14) or interceptions (13), and Matic has attempted at least 97 more passes than any other player.

Matić must also take on greater responsibility now that Pogba is on the sidelines for the next few weeks. While few expect the Serbian to start breaking ahead of play, take on long-range shots, or demonstrate Pogba’s range of attacking skills, Matić may have to offer more than sound defence if Mourinho’s team is to retain its momentum over the next month or so. Herrera is now effectively first-reserve for Matić, and an option should Mourinho choose to deploy a 4-3-3 system as he did at Stoke. The former Athletic Bilbao player will feature in plenty of games this season, and he has been in this situation before. After all, Herrera began last season on the bench before his performances became increasingly pivotal as the season wore on, although there must be some alarm that Pogba’s absence has still not created a route back into the team.

For now the role is with Matić and the 29-year-old has unquestionably improved United’s midfield. True, the player’s age means that Matić will not replicate the decade Carrick has spent at Old Trafford. Not least because the club offered just a three-year contract. It is a quick fix; a short-term measure to solve a problem position.

Nemanja Matic : The CDM, rest all mere details

To characterise the 29-year-old as only a physical or athletic presence is unfair, but understandable. Matic is 6ft 4ins and deceptively quick but, as Mourinho once said of one of his favourite students, faster than the rest “where speed is needed most”. The Portuguese did not build sides around Cambiasso, Makelele, Costinha and Alonso because of their ability to out-muscle an opponent or win gold in a 100m race; they were signed for their speed of mind, to help unleash the talents of Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Deco and Derlei, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil.

03

The holding midfielder cupboards were bare when Mourinho first arrived. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger were deemed unsavoury, while none of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba were ever a long-term solution. Last season, Herrera made the most tackles (39), Daley Blind the most interceptions (26) and Pogba the most passes (1,043) in the Premier League as Mourinho managed to cobble together random ingredients to create an adequate dish. Matic has made an edible midfield meal delectable.

In Mourinho’s land of giants, Matic is more brain than brawn. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are producing and performing at one end, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Eric Bailly the other. In the middle are Matic and Pogba, with the latter relishing more freedom before his untimely injury.

Matic is Mourinho’s comfort blanket, his safety net, the one player who, by his own admission, keeps things “simple”. His comment earlier in the week that “I will be better” felt like a warning to the rest of the Premier League. If the new ‘assistant coach’ can improve on an already impressive start, Mourinho’s second season prophecy will be realised once more.

 

Is he the difference this season?

Answer : YES

Phil Jones : The Tragicom king

“Exclusive! Water is wet! Grass is green! The world is round!” 

Statements of a similar ilk greeted the news that Phil Jones has suffered yet another injury and now making a comeback. This time around the Manchester United defender is out with a Toe injury that will see the Lancastrian making a comeback this saturday.

If 2014/15 was a frustrating season for Jones, this campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. Illness in August, September and October, muscle injury in November and December, ankle injury in January, February, March and April. Forty-six minutes in all competitions so far in 2016. This has been a year of changes for Manchester United.  Jose Mourinho admitted that even he did not expect Romelu Lukaku’s prolific introduction to life at Old Trafford; Anthony Martial looks a different player to the one seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders last term; Ander Herrera has gone from potential captain to fourth-choice central midfielder. But perhaps the most unexpected sub-plot in United’s story so far has been the outstanding contribution of Phil Jones.

No one has played a greater role in United’s rock-solid start to the campaign. Mourinho’s machine has kept five clean sheets in six games, and though both Jones and his partner, Eric Bailly, had an off day during the 2-2 draw at Stoke, Jones in particular made amends with a man-of-the-match performance during the 1-0 win at Southampton.

Mourinho in August said

“If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender,”

The United boss certainly knows what he likes in a centre-back. His greatest successes have been built around solid foundations provided by the likes of  John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, Gary Cahill – all outstanding centre-halves in the traditional sense. The fact they can use the ball is a bonus to Mourinho. Winning it will always remain the priority.

Jones offers the kind of balance Mourinho appreciates. The England international is the most rounded centre-half at his disposal and the statistics back up the eyewitness testimonies that Jones has been one of United’s shining lights.

Mourinho hinted, there is always a caveat with Jones. Fitness, not form, has always been his greatest weakness. Under four different managers, Jones has been injured and unavailable for 25 per cent of his six-plus years at Old Trafford, causing him to miss 101 matches in the process. In terms of Premier League appearances, Juan Mata, who joined United two and a half years after Jones, trails the defender by only 11 games. David de Gea, who arrived at Old Trafford at the same time as Jones, has 78 more league matches to his name – more than two full seasons’ worth.

In recent years Jones’ name has been synonymous with the treatment room, a Darren Anderton for modern times. According to transfermarkt.com, the former Blackburn Rovers player has suffered 14 different injuries since he moved to United in 2011. To break it down he’s been out with knee problems, sprained ankles, shoulder injuries, shin splints, malleolar issues, concussion, back troubles and thrombosis for good measure.

Capture

The statistics are quite sobering. The defender has effectively missed over two league campaigns worth of matches and spent well over a year on the sidelines. Unfortunately for Jones he remains a figure who’s all too easy to mock, from the faces he pulls, to the sheer ungainliness of his defending, such as his party piece against Olivier Giroud

Mourinho, though, said in his first press conference as United boss that he “likes specialists, not multi-functional players”. In Jones’ case, the manager has been true to his word. All of his appearances have come at the heart of Mourinho’s defence, aside from one occasion when he was asked to come off the bench at Rostov to do a job in midfield for the closing stages.

Last season, after Jones admitted that Louis van Gaal didn’t seem to trust him, he benefited from consistency of selection to form a formidable partnership alongside Marcos Rojo, playing 10 Premier League games out of 11 through the latter part of 2016 before injury inevitably struck.

Gareth Southgate has been equally impressed. As he said

“He’s got very good composure on the ball. He’s got the reading of the game, he’s aggressive in his defending – which I like – and I think he has got fantastic experience, although he is still only relatively young.”

Many forget that Jones is still just 25 years old, which is testament to the fact he has been around the Premier League for seven-and-a-half years and the England team for six. In that time, he has become more known to many for pulling funny faces and THAT header on the floor, which itself demonstrated the type of desire to defend that many modern centre-halves appear to lack. But with his blend of experience and potential, Jones has to be taken seriously as first choice for club and country. The only worry is whether his body will allow him.

Is Phil Jones stealing a living, or is he a luckless soul who needs fortune to favour him for once? There are many debates to be had about Jones’ value to United, or lack thereof, but one thing is plainly clear, his injury problems is clearly no laughing matter any more.

Maybe this Red Devil deserves more sympathy than he’s used to receiving.

 

 

Roy Keane : The man behind those red misty eyes

The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.

Roaring tyrant or inspiring leader? Aggressive hothead or driven talisman? Dramatic is not a word that Keane would enjoy using to describe himself, but it would fit the path of his career. For many, the images of Roy Maurice Keane that endure are of the sinew-busting approaches to referees or him towering menacingly over fallen opponents. They fit the character that has been built up over time so easily – he’s an angry man, right? The pantomime villain that others hate but his followers love, if only because they are not facing him.

Manchester-United-Champions-League-treble-1999-Scholes-Keane.png

Everyone and their grandma knows how the Champions League concluded in May 1999. That balmy night in Barcelona, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær won it for Manchester United. What some fans — not United fans, mind you — may forget is that United’s road to that final was perhaps even more dramatic than their late comeback to win the tournament. Their resurrection from 2-0 down in the semi-final second-leg against Juventus in Turin was perhaps their greatest moment of all.

Therein lies the paradox of his success. A born winner, ruthlessly determined and free from the distractions of celebrity and an almost religiously private family man, but needing the grandest stage of all to feed his thriving potential. His infamous comment about the corporate atmosphere of fans eating prawn sandwiches showed a disdain for the glitz and glamour of the theatre in which he found himself, but without the very essence he was against he could never have achieved everything he had in the game.

Titanic battles between the Irishman and his arch-enemy Patrick Vieira – and by proxy between Manchester United and Arsenal – characterised the late 1990s. In a face to face encounter broadcast by ITV three years ago, Keane stared deep into the Senegal-born giant’s eyes as the reminisced over their era on the pitch.

89377890

“It was almost my job to keep you down there,” Keane said to Vieira.

“It was an important role for me that I didn’t feel you were going to get the edge on me. I needed to dominate even the players at Man Utd; I think if I’d let you beat me in these rivalries in the middle of the park it don’t would have cost me long term.”

Their last ever league clash in 2005 epitomised the depths to which the battle was as much a mental struggle as a physical or tactical one. On his way back from the dressing room to collect his forgotten captain’s armband, Keane overheard Vieira threaten Gary Neville with a direct confrontation if he went near Robert Pires, and his switch flipped.

“We’ll see you out there,”

Psychology has always been central to his style, but whereas others in the game would use modern theories to direct and inspire them, Keane’s version was much simpler: never, ever, accept anything other than your best.

While playing for Nottingham Forest, a sloppy back pass from Keane led to a Crystal Palace equaliser in a 1991 FA Cup tie, which infuriated Brian Clough so much he punched the young midfielder in the face. Nearly two decades later, Keane reflected on his former manager’s attack:

 “Cloughie was dead right, absolutely. It was the best thing he ever did for me. It’s good to get angry. It’s an emotion and it’s part of the game. If people upset you and you don’t get angry, I’d say you’re in the wrong game.”

If emotion is part of football – and few could argue with that statement – one would assume that elation and pride would rank pretty highly on Keane’s mind when reflecting on his career as a player, given the sheer volume of trophies and adulation he earned. That would be too simplistic a view, though; there were much darker sides to the mental aspect of the game that Keane battled with.

 “A lot of my preparation would be fear; fear of losing, a fear of letting people down, a fear of letting my neighborhood down, a fear of letting my family down. Fear played a big part of my sporting career. The enjoyment was very, very brief I’m afraid. Too brief.”

The attitude towards overcoming negative emotions, as opposed to exalting in the positive ones, was infinitely more central to his way of thinking, however. When he was brought in as assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, he was told that the squad had a policy of not dwelling on bad results for more than a day.

“Obviously Villa were used to it but I wasn’t,” he was reported as saying. “At United we had a culture where, if you were beaten on a Saturday – people talk about bouncing back and moving on quickly – but Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, the lads would be fuming, and I loved that.”

In one of his most iconic matches in the red of Manchester, Keane faced what could have been one of the most crushing moments of a player’s career, but showed his character in turning it into his most memorable and inspiring moments through sheer brute force of will. The sublime Juventus side of Edgar DavidsZinedine Zidane and Paolo Montero had raced into a 3-1 aggregate lead in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final when Keane rose to head hhi-res-e2a1afb8f2156f8ea47b7d81003d34a8_crop_exactis side back into contention. Eight minutes later, however, he was booked for a late stretch to tackle Zidane, which would prevent him from playing in the final if his side got there.

roy-keane_ijddggviaksf1rn8offkma71h

When he wasn’t captain of Manchester United stretching every sinew to the cause, when he was just another man walking his dog through the leafy suburbs, he was anything but the growling pit bull that many choose to remember him as. That petrified young boy standing nervously on his doorstep believed every powerfully terrifying image of the man, but what few people know about, or care to recall, is the softly spoken man who would stop for a cup of tea with the octogenarian dog walkers who shared his peaceful strolls across the hidden parks of Cheshire.

One such route would take him past a low house surrounded by trees with a large garden overlooking the fifth tee at Hale Golf Club, a few hundred metres from his old front door where the media camped out to catch a shot of him with his beloved Triggs after Saipan.

A red mist of rage? Not a bit of it. In the world of Roy Keane, everything was measured – but by his standards and not anybody else’s.

But if there is one thing that sums up that night, or even one thing that sums up the Manchester United of 1999, it’s that goal from the Irishman. Raising his teammates alongside him as he flew in the air, showing them how it’s done, whilst simultaneously crushing the spirit of his opponents. That’s Keano.

Fergie said after:

“I don’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman, but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made, and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

PS: tft and image credits :gettyandunitedwebsite