Regardless of how morbid it may sound, every professional footballer only has so long to make use of their abilities at the top of the sport. They come, they play, they retire; it’s as simple as that.
A club like Manchester United has seen countless wonders pass through its doors over the years, and every player endures a period of diminishing usefulness before finally deciding it’s time to hang up their boots.
While he arguably still has his part to play at the Theatre of Dreams, Rio Ferdinand is unfortunate enough to be going through this period. In truth, this season has actually been one of the 34-year-old’s better ones in terms of staving off injury, but that hasn’t stopped the inevitable ailment of age starting to affect his performance.
Over the course of 2012, Ferdinand made a pretty respectable 38 appearances which, given his age, is certainly an achievement.
However, now is the time where nostalgic loyalty begins to wear thin and what’s best for the team must be taken into full account, a quandary Sir Alex Ferguson has had to deal with on many an occasion over the last 27 years or so.
Three years younger than Ferdinand, it’s now Nemanja Vidic who’s seen as Manchester United’s premier centre-back. In bolder terms, he is the club’s best defensive asset.
The Serbian has felt his fair share of injury woe over the last two years but has been largely healthy, especially when compared to the knee injury-maligned years that Ferdinand has had.
With a combined age of 65, one would think that the vast amount of experience shared between these two would make for a devastating partnership. While that may have been the case in recent times, the same can’t be said for now and, more importantly, the future.
It’s well known and well documented that Sir Alex Ferguson, like many managers hoping to achieve greatness in this sport, is in great support of youth production. He knows when to cut certain ties, no matter how pivotal they may have been in the past.
All players considered, the Scotsman has started a total of five at centre-back in the Premier League campaign thus far. The aforementioned Ferdinand and Vidic have both been joined by any of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling or Michael Carrick in league matters this season. Phil Jones is assured to join that list once he's properly recovered from injury.
A combination of injury and inexperience have resulted in numerous, if unwanted, amounts of experimentation for Ferguson at times, but that necessity has allowed the likes of Evans to excel under pressure.
In truth, the Northern Irishman has been considered a liability in Manchester United colours at times in the past, but this renewed sense of responsibility has shown what a talent Evans can be on his day, reflected in his recent signing of a three-year contract extension (via BBC Sport).
On top of that, while Ferdinand may have done so himself in the past, Evans is also a veritable threat going forward, already scoring four goals and contributing two assists this season, a tally many would agree as highly impressive for a central defender.
The same can be said of Smalling who, while featuring disappointingly as a right-back this campaign at times, has been a revelation at centre-back for periods, slotting in alongside Ferdinand, Vidic or Evans to give a youthful edge to the backline.
With Vidic, Jones and Smalling all spending time on the sidelines with respective injuries at the start of the season, a combination of Ferdinand and Evans, with Carrick sometimes filling in was, for two months, the preferred central partnership.
It goes without saying that the weakest aspect of the Red Devils’ squad so far this season has been their defence; an aspect undoubtedly down to a defence going through a huge state of transition.
This season, Rio Ferdinand has started in 17 games across all competitions, three of which have yielded a clean sheet.
Vidic matches this number despite having only stated in eight fixtures across all competitions. In short, it is the Serbian that’s now looked to as the leading figure in Ferguson’s back four.
Even then, though, Vidic lacks a certain pace or agility that only youth can often bring. That leaves the other starting berth for one of United’s more youthful prospects, likely to be Evans based on recent standards.
This isn’t to say that Ferdinand’s time as a Manchester United patriarch is over. A man brought to Old Trafford for what’s believed to be close to £30 million, going on to make over 450 appearances for the club and earning more than 80 England caps in the process will assuredly go to use.
The example set by Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs teaches that the extremities of the modern player have been stretched beyond their previous limits, but one could argue that playing in a position as vital as centre-back has less to lean on when age becomes a factor.
Out of contract this summer, heads will now turn to the topic of whether or not Rio Ferdinand still has more to offer in the red of Manchester United. However, with those cards then on the table, the chance of a starting place rightfully begin to wither away.
Decline is only to be expected in the years that Ferdinand has reached playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs. That said, there isn’t one many could ask more of as a substitute option.
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