Rio Ferdinand’s announcement that he would not be staying at Manchester United highlighted a major problem with Ryan Giggs’ appointment as interim manager at Manchester United: he didn’t prepare the Red Devils for next season.
As soon as Nemanja Vidic announced he would be leaving United, David Moyes made a point of playing Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans in central defence with one of Vidic or Ferdinand to give them some experience of what will be expected of them in the future. The best thing Moyes did during his tenure was prepare the back four for a changing of the guard – Ferdinand and Vidic aren’t getting any younger, and they need to be replaced sooner rather than later.
Sir Alex Ferguson made his intentions clear from the outset when signing Jones and Smalling; they were young central defenders with their entire careers ahead of them, brought in at a time when Vidic and Ferdinand were just passing the peak of their powers. The plan was to have them in place at a point in their careers where they could learn from two seasoned, world class professionals and take over from them when the time was right.
It started with playing them slightly out of position where they could become ball playing defenders as opposed to, using a Football Manager term, limited defenders (it also did no harm to their first team prospects that they would be able to play in different positions). With the greatest respect to Fulham and Blackburn, they aren’t teams known for cultured defenders, and tend to adopt a policy of getting the ball away from their area as quickly as possible. If they could play positions where they had to be comfortable on the ball, it would become a second nature when they played in central defence, and they would become accustomed to playing the Manchester United Way.
With their training in ball control complete by the time Sir Alex retired, it was David Moyes’ turn to play them in their rightful positions. Play one of them alongside one of the old guard give them first-hand experience of what is expected of them in terms of positioning, being vocal and, ultimately, being a Manchester United defender.
Ahead of the game against Liverpool, a Sky Sports pundit questioned whether Jones or Smalling should be playing in this type of game, and suggested that Vidic and Ferdinand had to play together as Jones and Smalling weren’t ready yet. But he missed the point: this was exactly the type of game that one of them should be playing, so that the students can learn alongside the teachers exactly what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. Moyes knew that and persisted with Jones alongside Vidic. Phasing out the old guard while showing the new boys how it should be done was exactly the correct way of doing it, and in the season where there was no pressure, now was the time for the new boys to earn their stripes.
And now we get to the crux of the article: in the games Ryan Giggs had as interim manager, he didn’t progress the plan. Ferdinand and Vidic started three of Giggs’ four games, with Vidic coming on for Jones in the one game they didn’t start. Having even less pressure than Moyes, and games against Norwich, Sunderland, Hull and Southampton, everything was in place to really move the plan forward and start Jones and Smalling together in all 4 games, putting a marker down that they were the central defensive partnership to take the club forward.
With Vidic’s impending departure, it was imperative that at least one of them made a claim for the vacant position. That we still have question marks over both defenders starting regularly for the club, is testament to the fact that they haven’t shown enough to make the claim for Vidic’s spot. Three games against teams in the bottom half of the season was the perfect opportunity to show what they were made of as a partnership for the future, and the final game of the season against Southampton to show that they could handle themselves against a potent attacking force.
Not only are there question marks about their quality as individuals, they also have not had the chance to prove their worth as a partnership - the last four games were ideal for the two of them to start together and develop their understanding of how the other plays. While they could do this in training, the only way they will know if it works is to put it into practice. With very little game time together, United are relying on a new partnership with little to no back-up.
There was, perhaps, a reliance from Giggs on the fact that Ferdinand would be staying so that their training could continue under one master instead of two. Now that this is out of the window, they have two vacant spots and two inexperienced pupils are needed to step up. There would be a bit more faith in the two of them if Giggs had allowed them to show their stuff and develop their understanding of each other in the final games of the season rather than rely on two players who are no longer going to be there – one of which he already knew about (personally, Vidic should have played a far smaller role in the season than he actually did, but that’s a side issue).
Unless Louis van Gaal brings in more experienced defenders while Smalling and Jones continue their education, next season will be an interesting one for United’s defence and David De Gea is going to be very busy. Jones and Smalling will effectively be having a baptism of fire at the centre of defence and, without an experienced head to finish off their tuition, United’s back four will be the most vulnerable it has been for years. Question marks that should have been answered this season remain and, until they prove their worth both as individuals and as a partnership, United will be incredibly vulnerable.
By Raj Devandran - Arsenal fan -