In a week of tragedy for Manchester Utd’s European and Premiership title hopes Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic both suffer injuries that threaten to jeopardize everything. Vidic was assisted off the field during the midweek Champions League game in Rome and then Rio gimped out of the Middlesbrough fiasco after a degree of culpability for two goals. Ferdinand in the newspaper headlines and in a protective cast nursing the potential of a metatarsal break. But with Utd’s vast and expensive squad are these injuries really going to take a pinch out the formality of Premiership success and European inevitability?
The glory, the fame and the majority of the money is frequently splashed on the goal scoring machines and on the match winning celebrity, but spare a thought for the value of a defender. This season, and indeed most of last season, Vidic and Ferdinand have been irreplaceable and while the records, the statistics and the legendary comparisons have been focusing on the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney, the very foundation of Utd’s success has been with the central defensive partnership. Nemanja Vidic is the classic belligerent defender that Utd have been missing since Jaap Stam, and Ferdinand brings the composure when it’s necessary to play football. A treasured alliance indeed. And a missing piece of the jigsaw that might just scupper the remaining and vital part of the season for Utd.
After reflection it seems that Ferdinand might only be relieved of duties for a matter of a couple of days while Vidic is closer to a couple of weeks. And while the potential replacements seem resourceful enough from one perspective they also seem rather inadequate from another. That second goal in Rome looks to have significant appeal now.
Indeed I think that Arsenal have suffered their very own injury crisis that has cost them much. Losing Van Persie, Rosický and Eduardo have crippled their season, but the biggest travesty was losing fullback Bacary Sagna. The responsibility of contemporary fullbacks has very much changed during the recent evolution of team formations and their systems of play. The new generations of shape are no longer limited to what the text book dictated; rather the liquid structure of a team sheet is limited by imagination and preparation only. Many top flight mangers are opting to deploy two deep central midfield players negating, with petrified caution, the fluid counter attack that is the signature of most winning teams. How you then deploy your front four varies from opinion to opinion and sometimes it varies from game to game under the same opinion. What this tactical innovation means is that the fullback is now a position enjoying a renaissance. In an effort to have another player join the attack with the fringe benefit of providing genuine width the fullbacks are encouraged to carry forward, often with abandon. No longer is the right back a berth for the fat kid or the cheapest contract in the dressing room.
Bacary Sagna has been a revelation this season and even though the Arsenal trolley had a wonky wheel before his injury, I can’t help but think that a couple of Arsenal’s woes are attributed to his absence. Certainly when you consider that Sagna was off the field for the Chelsea fight back at ‘The Bridge’ and also Sagna was absent while Steven Gerrard was tormenting the stunningly out of place Kolo Touré who was deputising during the first European game.
Chelsea have had their share of important defenders missing with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho suffering this season. Both Terry and Carvalho have only played about half the season and when you combine that with the absence of first choice keeper Petr Cech you can start to comprehend the resurgence of Chelsea during their return. Again I think Cech has been a vital missing component for Chelsea, not so much Cech missing games this season rather he is missing the form that made him unique before that leprecorn from Reading smashed him up. And even today Chelsea’s world has been turned upside down as Cech will almost certainly be missing for the remainder of this season due to a bizarre training ground incident.
Liverpool suffered the dreaded metatarsal curse with Daniel Agger. Last season Agger contributed a significant amount to Liverpool’s Champions League final appearance and their third place finish in the Premiership. This season Agger has only played a handful of games and he won’t be playing any more either. Sami Hyypiä has stepped in for the majority of the season and he’s earned himself a contract extension because of it. But I’m sure that Benítez only had Hyypiä pencilled in for Carling Cup games and for the bottom three teams at home and not a forty game marathon season. Perhaps with Agger’s greater contribution the Premiership table might look a little different for Liverpool.
It’s not that defenders are more valuable than goal scorers; after all if you drew every game nil nil you’d end up with 38pts and that would get you relegated most seasons. The striker will always be the king of the football field, but never underestimate the importance of the defenders. I thought it most pertinent that at the start of Sunderland’s inaugural Premiership campaign under Roy Keane he splashed a speculative nine million on goalkeeper Craig Gordon and that he spent far less on Kenwyne Jones or Michael Chopra. Roy Keane’s imminent Premiership survival validates such a decision.
So as the crescendo of the Premiership title race flirts with the formalities of the Champions League conclusion it is perhaps not yet a given that one team or another is destined for glory or destined otherwise. Much will depend on the contributions of first team regulars and replacement players in equal measure. Long term injury or mild impediment might assign fortune one way or another, as might the miracle of the medical staff to redeem a player off the treatment table and onto the game field.
From The Writings Of Jonny Carter