Manchester United remain at the summit of the Premier League, scoring goals at will and playing with an attacking verve that has seen Sir Alex Ferguson label the team better than the treble-winning side of ‘99.
However, this season United have too often suffered defensive lapses, seeing the team concede 31 goals in 26 games.
This begs the questions, who is Manchester United’s best centre-back and what is United’s best defensive partnership? To answer that it is necessary to compare stats between each centre-back and, for context, to compare their stats to other centre-backs in the league.
Defensive statistics for Rio Ferdinand 2012/13
Rio Ferdinand has been integral to United sides over the years and has arguably been the fulcrum again this season. Ferdinand’s tackle success rate of 78% is somewhat average though, especially when compared to other Premier League centre-backs including Vincent Kompany (88%), Thomas Vermaelen (86%) and Gary Cahill (83%).
It is perhaps Ferdinand’s number of errors that has been the greatest cause for concern. He has already made 2 in 2012/13 and he made 3 in total during 2011/12, which is a stark contrast to his error free season in 2010/11.
Defensive statistics for Nemanja Vidic for 2012/13
It is important to stress that Nemanja Vidic has started only 10 games this season, making 1 appearance from the substitutes bench. So not only will his statistics be based on less data, but he has yet to gather any momentum this season which will of course have a knock-on effect on his performances.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Vidic has endured a somewhat tough season, with only a 71% tackle success rate. What is important though is his aerial prowess, where his success rate of 71% outdoes Ferdinand’s 58%.
This is why Vidic remains invaluable to United, because his presence and authority in the air is what sets him apart from any other United defender.
Indeed, Vidic (71%) has a better aerial success rate when compared to Kompany (58%) and Vermaelen (59%), yet it is less impressive than Cahill (74%).
Defensive statistics for Jonny Evans 2012/13
Jonny Evans, meanwhile, has been praised for assuming responsibility in the absence of either Ferdinand or Vidic and has put in some commanding performances for United. This suggests that the Northern Ireland international is finally repaying Ferguson’s faith where once he was heavily criticised by fans and pundits alike.
What is interesting is that Evans’ defensive stats are still inferior to those of Ferdinand and Vidic. Evans has a tackle success rate of 72% and an aerial success win rate of 57%.
From a purely objective standpoint, given Vidic’s aerial ability and Ferdinand’s superior tackling ability, it is difficult to make a case for Evans starting if all three are fit and available for United.
However, Evans has weighed in with his fair share of goals (3) and has the most clean sheets to his name with 5, compared to Ferdinand’s 3 and Vidic’s 2. This twinned with the fact that Ferdinand and Vidic are ageing and finding it tougher to play twice weekly means that the three are likely to be used in rotation, as Ferguson alluded to recently.
Manchester United have kept two clean sheets in their last two games, so it is pertinent to use these two games to illustrate the case in point.
In the 2-0 victory over Everton, Vidic and Evans combined to shut out an Everton side which has scored 40 goals in 26 games this season.
Before that in the 1-0 victory away at Fulham, Ferdinand and Evans were the pairing that kept a clean sheet.
So it is clear then that regardless of the combination, each defender is vital.
This was perfectly demonstrated in the 2-1 home victory over Southampton, where Vidic was partnered with Chris Smalling who was substituted for Ferdinand after struggling for an hour. Vidic was imperious, winning 80% of his aerial duels which is significant given Rickie Lambert’s aerial threat.
Ferdinand and Vidic have typically been shoe-ins to start together for Manchester United and many fans would still consider them United’s two best defenders.
They are however getting older and becoming more susceptible to injuries. Along with this, for want of a better word, decline, Jonny Evans has matured into a fine defender who is rightly deserving of his plaudits.
As Ferguson has already hinted, Ferdinand and Vidic are not likely to start every game together. Whilst the stats show that each player has his own respective strengths and weaknesses, perhaps a three-way rotation system is ideal.
It suits Manchester United. For instance, Vidic played in the home victory over Everton but then sat out the Champions League away leg at Real Madrid and yet this was purposeful. It was a decision taken because Jonny Evans is more than capable and simultaneously allowed Vidic to rest and recover.
In essence, because of the sheer number of games that Manchester United play over the course of a season, a rotation system is the solution to the troubles that Ferdinand and Vidic are likely to face in the latter stages of their careers.
The comfort for United fans is that Evans is ready-made for such a role and has shown himself to be worthy of a starting place.
This, along with the potential to play Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and even Michael Carrick at centre-back means that whilst United may have struggled in defence this season, they have more than enough quality to stick with that they have instead of delving into the transfer market.
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