By Jack Perry
The search for a cultured, ball playing centre-back has reached fever pitch in England. Pep Guardiola’s demand for even his goalkeeper to be able to use the ball effectively has been part of larger trend of modern defenders becoming better with the ball at their feet. Chris Smalling was left out of Gareth’s Southgate’s England plans for his lack of composure on the ball. The place for an out and out brute of a centre-back appears to be quickly diminishing. Yet there is no doubt that Nemanja Vidic in his prime would improve almost every defence in Premier League history. Paired with a graceful, ball-playing Rio Ferdinand, their iconic chemistry allowed Vidic to assert himself as one of the greatest Premier League defenders of all time during his eight years in England.
‘Vida’ grew up amid the Yugoslav wars, living under the perpetual fear of bombs destroying his family home, before signing with Red Star Belgrade’s academy at 14-years-old. Perhaps learning what real terror felt like so early on in life was what resulted in his complete fearlessness on the pitch. Signed for a paltry seven million pounds in the January transfer window of 2006, he quickly became a reliable part in the final act of the trophy laden Ferguson era at Manchester United.
There have been few players in history that have attacked challenges as vehemently as Nemanja Vidic. Utterly relentless in his approach to defending, Vidic captured many striker’s souls over the course of 90 minutes. His sheer physical presence haunted opposition, a quick glance over the shoulder to discover hardened eyes glaring at a long ball flying his way must have been one of the most intimidating sights in football. In the Premier League, the ‘Serbian Terminator’ won 64% of his aerial battles and 75% of his tackles, many of these in spectacularly aggressive manner.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) January 29, 2016
The clichés that forever surround old school defending all apply to the Serbian, a ‘no nonsense’ defender that whenever was in doubt, would not hesitate to get it out. Demonstrated by the fact he is 10th all time for premier league clearances – ahead of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry despite having played over 100 games less than both.
If you had to define a player through a single incident that encapsulated their career, the tackle below is a microcosm of Vidic’s time at Manchester United.
Never have two players arrived at a 50/50 with every person in the stadium knowing that the outcome is pre-determined.
A soldier and warrior on the pitch, Vidic nearly converted these qualities to an actual battlefield in 2009. Sir Alex recalls their conversation in his autobiography:
“He was a proud Serb. In 2009, he came to see me to say he might be getting called up.
“‘What do you mean, called up?’ I said, alarmed. ‘Kosovo. I am going,’ he said.
“‘It’s my duty.’
“He had the eyes for it.”
“Nemanja whoa, Nemanja whoa, He come’s from Serbia, He’ll f***ing murder you” – this chant almost took a more literal meaning than originally intended.
Vida’s trophy cabinet tells a story in itself. Five Premier League titles, three League Cups and one Champions League is some trophy haul for under a decade at one club. Three years in a row Rio and Vida were the PFA team of the year centre back partnership. Nemanja also won the Premier League Player of the Season (Now the EA Sports Player of the Season) twice, one of only three players to have ever done this. The other two? Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo – not bad company.
The fact Manchester United are still trying to replace both Vidic and Ferdinand speaks volumes. Not only in terms of their defensive talent, but as leaders. Made club captain in September 2011, Vidic was only the second foreign captain United had appointed. It is not difficult to understand why. Following the Serbian out on to the pitch must have felt like you had your own personal bodyguard, he not only defended his goal ferociously, but his teammates too.
As his brilliance petered out under the strain of knee injuries, so did Manchester United’s. An unassuming free transfer to Inter Milan in the midst of pure David Moyes confusion meant he was not given the farewell his successes had earned. Despite a less than memorable departure, the legacy of brutally effective defending he left in the Premier League will not be easily forgotten.