Following all the talk of Manchester United’s deficiencies in midfield, Nemanja Vidic’s decision to leave the club at the end of the season has now thrown the spotlight sharply on another area of the pitch.
During this extremely difficult first season in charge, David Moyes has talked frequently about moulding the team to his own vision. Once again, he mentioned this in his pre-match press conference on Friday, but claimed it was not a part of the “mutual decision” for Vidic to move on, per ESPN.
I think people know that I have things in my mind that I want to do, what I want to change over time. I can't do it overnight, but that wasn't the reason for this. This is a decision which has been mutually decided together. He felt it was the right time for him so we will get on with it and we will move on.
Vidic joined United in 2006 for £7 million and soon struck up an imperious partnership with Rio Ferdinand. In perfect symmetry, his announcement has come at a time when his main defensive partner has struggled with both recurring injuries and apparently being out of favour. Moyes’ vision, then, will be shaped by how he fills the hole left behind by the two United stalwarts.
Sir Alex Ferguson had apparently already done the groundwork in defence. No more Rio Ferdinand-style £30 million signings—in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones he snapped up a pair of players that, following only a handful of appearances in the English Premier League, perfectly fit the profile of the majority of the Scot’s later transfers.
Young and talented, but raw. The brief was simple: watch and learn.
Chris Smalling made a meteoric rise from non-league football to United, via Fulham, whereas Phil Jones was a promising youngster who rose through the ranks at Blackburn Rovers. Alongside Jonny Evans, they were seen as the future backbone of the United team once Vidic and Ferdinand stepped aside.
That future is now.
Often deployed in midfield by Moyes so far this season, Phil Jones still has a big job to prove what is his natural position. Jamie Carragher commented to Sky Sports he believed Jones shared many of Vidic’s attributes—commanding in the air and impressive leadership skills.
However, so far this season, whilst players like Anderson (now on loan at Fiorentina) and Shinji Kagawa have sat watching from the bench, Jones has been trying to shore up a United midfield lacking creativity and flair. Was Moyes making a point to the Glazer family about the depth of his squad?
Are Evans, Smalling and Jones really ready to take over?
Jones must remain injury-free and finally show, in his preferred position, he still possesses all the attributes his early promise showed.
Smalling, too, has been moved across the back line in various positions. It is a couple of years ago now since he made the high-profile error that gifted Vincent Kompany a free header in Manchester City’s title charge in 2012. Hopefully, thanks to that and the time in between, he will have learned much.
Evans looks the more assured of the three. He has at least featured in his given position regularly. However, he has often partnered either Vidic or Ferdinand. Perhaps he is much more comfortable next to a bigger physical presence?
The midfield was the urgent area of concern for the United manager. Therefore he has, naturally, tried to address that. Whether an injury-plagued Marouane Fellaini and the rather opportunistic capture of Juan Mata actually fit in with his original plans for the squad—or whether his vision is more fluid than his tactics have shown so far remains to be seen. Next, his defence must be looked at.
Other than the occasional stinker, Nemanja Vidic has been the proverbial rock in United’s defence for the best part of eight years. He will be sorely missed. In conjunction with Ferdinand, that rock cast an immense shadow.
With half a season still left—and every opposition side still sensing blood—it is likely there will be ample opportunities for Smalling, Jones and Evans to move out of the shadows and stake their place within Moyes’ vision of the future.
If they are not up to the task, Moyes will have to find a way to make his “war chest” money stretch even further than midfield.