As Manchester United made a huge step towards the 2011 Champions league final after a consummate away performance at Schalke, the Reds’ attacking contingent has drawn huge amounts of praise. Rightly so and picking the man-of-the-match award was arguably the most difficult part of last night’s game with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs pulling out outstanding performances.
So good was United’s attack that at times on Tuesday United’s defensive axis of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van Der Sar could have been forgiven for ‘cracking open a can’ and mingling with United’s travelling support. Yet, although the back four was given a fairly easy ride against Schalke, the unit has been key in the campaign so far.
Some of United’s flowing attacking football has been brilliant of late, with the partnership between Rooney and Hernández flourishing but it is the sturdiness of the side’s defense that has made this possible. Against the surprise German package United broke a Champions League record becoming the first team ever to not concede a goal away from home. Furthermore the Reds have also only conceded three times overall (Valencia, Chelsea and Marseille) one of which was an own goal. It’s a staggering record that supports those who claim United’s first choice defence is the best in the world.
Since Ferdinand’s return from a prolonged calf injury the Reds’ back-four has returned to its miserly best; United concedes fewer goals when Vidic and Ferdinand play together. However, credit is also due to the collective in the Champions League, where Ferdinand and Vidic have only played together five out of 10 games. In this record Chris Smalling has been a major factor, seamlessly filling in for either Vidic or Ferdinand since a £10 million move from Fulham. Despite the clear potential, Smalling is greatly helped by his experienced defensive cohorts, in particular Vidic.
Arguably the best defender in the world, Vidic was very unlucky not to receive this year’s PFA Player of the Year Award. If anything, the captaincy has brought Vidic’s game to another level. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, for example, Vidic coped brilliantly first against Fernando Torres then Didier Drogba. The Serbian’s positional sense, often highlighted as Ferdinand’s strong point, was on show too. Nemanja made nine clearances in an around the area and final third against Chelsea, two of which were in the six yard box, plus a further three headed clearances. Similarly at Old Trafford Vidic made 13 clearances and a further eight with his head. Of these 21 clearances Vidic failed to complete his work on just five occasions.
Where United has excelled, others have failed. Arsenal has struggled for years without a defender who leads his colleagues through tricky patches. United has just that in Ferdinand, whose calmness on the pitch and ability to mop up messy situations makes him the perfect foil for Vidic. Of course, Ferdinand has always fancied himself an attacking player and this is shown through the 32-year-old’s ability to bring the ball out of defence particularly when United a pushing for a goal.
Of course the centre–halves make up only two fifths of United’s back five and in van der Sar United has a ‘keeper with vital experience. Unless the Dutchman makes a dramatic u-turn, as Ferguson did in 2002, United must replace van der Sar with an experienced high-quality ‘keeper. Part of the reason United failed to win the league between 2003 and 2007 was the lack of a ‘world-class’ goalkeeper and with Manuel Neuer keeping Schalke in Tuesday’s game the young German certainly fits United’s bill.
However, the 24-year-old appears headed for Bayern Munich, but after Ferguson missed out on signing van der Sar back in 1999 when Peter Schmeichel retired he will surely not want to miss out again, if the German is his number one target. This argument is for the summer though and in the meantime the manager can revel in van der Sar’s terrific form. The great Dutchman has a maximum of six games to play in a United shirt; supporters should fully enjoy it.
The final piece of United’s almost impenetrable European defence is the full-backs, in whom the Reds have a perfect mix. In games where United is offered greater room for attack, Ferguson frequently deploys Evra with one of the Da Silva brothers. In tighter matches, such as the one at Stamford Bridge, John O’Shea gets the nod. The Irishman is not everybody’s cup of tea but is a good defender, who can contribute in an attacking sense such as the assist for Dimitar Berbatov’s winner against Liverpool this season.
Versatility is also important at United, particularly in defence, as the Reds are not by nature a defensive team. Attacking full-backs were very important at the Veltins Arena on Tuesday, where Fabio and Evra spent the majority of the game in the opposition half. The bulk of the pair’s combined 165 passes occurred in and around the half way line or in Schalke’s part of the field. This contrasts with the game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where O’Shea and Evra passed more in their own half, completing just 75 per cent compared to Fabio and Evra 90. The important stat though – in both matches the Reds kept a clean sheet.
United has one final match before confirming a place in this season’s Wembley showpiece but should the Reds go on to meet either Real Madrid or Barcelona the defence’s fine form must continue Ferguson’s side is to claim a fourth European Cup.