To say that Rio Ferdinand has been one of the bedrocks of United's successes in seasons past would be a gross understatement of the player's contributions towards United's cause.
One of the best defenders of his generation (in fact, the most expensive defender ever), Ferdinand is also among the best defenders United has ever had. But all good things have an extremely unpleasant habit of coming to an untimely end, and so seems to be the case here.
Ferdinand seems to have become a permanent fixture on the treatment table. Back problems, knee problems, groin strains, almost every injury problem which can plague a footballer short of a fracture seems to have afflicted him over the last two seasons. He has often missed games for months together because of these issues.
Credit to the man, his commitment to United's cause is exemplary, and always has been. When he was banned for eight months due to the drug scandal, the club stood by him, and he has been a revelation since then. Compare this to Chelsea's treatment of Adrian Mutu for a similar issue, and people can at once see why players at United play with everything that they can give at the club.
Perhaps the more cynical of fans would suggest that the club would've made a major loss on him by selling, which is laughable, given his immense talents and abilities.
It is his commitment which drives him to play a part in games where his experience and expertise are very much required, even if he is half-fit, or less than fully fit. Putting your body under strain in this manner in the most high profile and pressurizing of games speaks volumes about the man's character. But sadly, it is in such games that his fitness shortcomings often get highlighted.
His partnership with Vidic at the heart of the United defense is also considered among the best centre-back pairings of all time, given their records of keeping teams out. But given his injury record, how much more can Ferdinand expect to drag his body along?
As has become the case with Neville and Giggs, the mind remains sharp, and in Ferdinand's case, his reading of the game as a defender remains undiminished, yet, the body no longer responds to the rigors through which it is put in every game.
The Premiership is considered one of the toughest leagues because of its emphasis on pace, speed, and physicality. This makes it especially taxing for defenders, since they have to deal with either very strong or very fast strikers (Rooney and Drogba imbibe both qualities, which is why they're the two biggest defensive headaches).
While dealing with physical strikers is not a major problem, coping with quick, fast attackers, however, has become highlighted as a major problem in recent times for Ferdinand (cases in point being Bellamy and Torres).
Perhaps the Premiership's style of playing has taken its toll on his body, or perhaps this is due to a certain undiagnosed DNA problem (similar to Lassana Diarra or Ruben de la Red), but, whatever the reason maybe, it has become a certainty that Ferdinand has become even more injury prone than Ledley King, and is no longer a 40+ games-a-season defender. It is time to accept the factuality of this reality.
I'm not advocating a sale of Ferdinand, unlike a lot of people who've been doing so ever since the news of his latest injury came in. But, we also need to see as to how United can manage his career from here on. He is the captain when fit, except when Giggs is playing, and deserves the respect of the club and its fans.
Perhaps, Ferdinand can be converted into a player-coach from here on. By all accounts, he has completed or is close to completing his coaching badges, and United should certainly not let go of his expertise and experience.
Along with Neville, Ferdinand can provide invaluable insights to United's young crop of defenders. Johnny Evans has actually modeled his game on Ferdinand's, relying more on position and calm movement rather than Vidic's all-action, take-no-prisoners style. His distribution, a weak point right now, will certainly improve with a few more years under Ferdinand, who is superb at being a roving centre-back.
Plus, Ferdinand's presence in the squad allows United to easily fulfill the eight homegrown players in the squad requirement which will come into action from next season. It is creditable to United that they are perhaps the only club who are able to meet the home-grown criteria without any problems, apart from Aston Villa, maybe.
But, coming back to Ferdinand, it has become increasingly evident that his continued injury woes mean that United are, more often than not, short of experienced defenders at the centre of the defense, given Brown's injury concerns as well.
There are a number of potential defenders at the club, including the incoming Chris Smalling, but a more stable partner for Vidic needs to be found. United cannot afford to go through a defensive crisis similar to last season, and perhaps an experienced, injury-free defensive signing is also required.
But which player would be willing to come in and fulfill this role, which might involve a certain level of rotation as well ? Are there any defenders, whether in England or abroad, who have the requisite experience, and be available at a reasonable price?
United have rarely been seriously linked with a defensive signing till now, except Simon Kjaer of Palermo; who, despite being just 22, is vastly experienced. But the signing of such a young player will certainly inhibit the growth of other talents at the club.
The club has also been linked to Yaya Toure, the defensive midfielder from Barcelona who can play at center-back as well, as he did in the Champions' League final against United. Such a signing would perhaps be ideal, because in one go, it will provide cover at center-back, as well in defensive midfield, where United suffer from a lack of cover due to Hargreaves' injury problems.
What do you, as a reader, think is the ideal solution to Ferdinand's injury problems from the club's point of view?