Lost amid the tornado of news headlines provoked by Sir Alex Ferguson’s recently published autobiography were some tactical nuggets about past and present Manchester United players.
It is especially timely to recall Ferguson’s insights about veteran center back pair Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as they adapt their games to cope with advancing years and diminishing legs.
Assessing the impact of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona, the former United manager wrote: “To beat Barcelona in that cycle you needed centre-backs who could be really positive. Rio and Vidic were at an age where their preference was to defend the space. Nothing wrong with that. Quite correct. But, against Barcelona, it’s a limited approach.
“You need centre-backs who are prepared to drop right on top of [Lionel] Messi and not worry about what is happening behind them. Ok, he’ll drift away to the side. That’s fine. He’s less of a threat on the side than he is through the centre.”
Reflecting on Barcelona’s comprehensive 3-1 win over United in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley, Sir Alex added: “After the inquest I told myself: ‘When we play Barcelona next time in a Champions League final, I would have Jones and Smalling, or Smalling and Evans, right on top of Messi.’ I wasn’t going to let him torture us again.”
Two and a half years later, and Vidic and Ferdinand remain the first-choice center backs at Old Trafford. However, the years are catching up with the titans of the team that reached three Champions League finals out of four from 2008-2011 and won five Premier League titles in seven years.
Vidic did not travel with the United team that drew 2-2 at Cardiff City on Sunday after suffering a concussion midway through the 1-0 victory over Arsenal a fortnight earlier, the latest in a seemingly never-ending list of ailments for the Serbian warrior.
Ferdinand, paired with Jonny Evans in his first league start for two months, looked every day of his 35 years as he struggled to cope with the acceleration of former United attacker Fraizer Campbell, a striker he would have eaten for breakfast at his peak.
Perhaps more worryingly for David Moyes was that Ferdinand looked dead on his feet by the time substitute Kim Bo-Kyung darted in front of him to score the added-time header that sealed Cardiff a share of the points.
Moyes has shown this season that, like Ferguson, he puts greater store in Ferdinand and Vidic’s experience and than their susceptibility to injury and forwards with extreme pace. However, it is questionable whether the new manager’s enthusiasm is shared by the midfielders tasked with screening the increasingly vulnerable pair.
With Ferdinand and Vidic dropping deep to avoid being burned by quick forwards, the likes of Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones are obliged to play 10 or 20 yards deeper than they would if the goal was protected by a more mobile center back pair. In turn, this limits their capacity to dominate possession further up the field.
Few major teams rotate their center backs as frequently as United, which has five who would walk into most Premier League sides. Vidic, who turned 32 last month, and Ferdinand, 35, are both out of contract next summer. The likelihood is that the Serbian will be offered an extension to his deal, although Ferdinand's extra years could count against him.
There is a strong argument for Moyes building his defense around early-20-somethings Smalling, Jones and Evans, who all have their best years ahead of them. Vidic still has much to offer as a battle-hardened leader but it is time for him to take on more of a squad role.
Unquestionably, Jones, currently out with a groin injury, is a formidable athlete and the usefulness of his versatility over the course of a season should not be underestimated. He is also beginning to answer doubts, both inside and outside the club, as to whether he possesses the positional nous to develop into an A-list center back.
Smalling, an international center back midweek but a club right back five days later, looks especially in need of a run of games at the heart of the defense, which particularly benefitted Evans two seasons ago.
Moyes has the personnel. He just needs to demote the old guard and offer their successors his complete trust.JURY OUT ON SPURS' NOT-SO-MAGNIFICENT SEVEN SIGNINGS
On the back of a 124 million euro summer recruitment drive that was both coherent and attention-grabbing, neutrals queued up to back Tottenham as top-four candidates and, even, possible title challengers.
Not any longer. Following Sunday’s battering at Manchester City – a second league loss in a row - expectations have been radically adjusted. Offer a Spurs fan a Champions League place next season and he would bite your arm off.
The principal problem is that the team built by the Gareth Bale money remains largely reliant on players who lined up alongside the 100 million euro world-record signing rather than those who succeeded him.
The lack of impact from the seven summer signings is alarming not only for Andre Villas-Boas but new technical director Franco Baldini, who was lauded as a dynamic and far-sighted operator in the wake of a window in which Tottenham broke its transfer record a remarkable three times.
Etienne Capoue showed great promise before being struck by injury in the north London derby, but none of Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado, Paulinho, Christian Eriksen, Vlad Chiriches and Nacer Chadli has yet lived up to his billing.
Only Soldado and Paulinho have gained the immediate trust of Villas-Boas, although the 30 million euro Spaniard has looked consistently off the pace and the 20 million euro Brazilian is hardly an obvious improvement on Mousa Dembele or Sandro. Is the problem the system employed by the manager, or the players themselves?
In a reflection of their troubles, Soldado and Paulinho were both subbed after an hour at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, which meant that record signing Lamela, starting a Premier League match for the first time, was the only one of the seven signings to be on the pitch by the end.
It is not uncommon for players arriving from overseas – an experience shared by all of Spurs’ summer signings – to experience teething problems as they adjust to the unique pace and physicality of the English game. There are also the hidden issues such as language and culture, problems which have particularly affected former Roma player Lamela.
But Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas also had no Premier League experience before this season and demonstrated in another majestic City home display that it has not proved too much of a hurdle for them to clear.
Villas-Boas and Baldini could argue that Spurs are operating in a different transfer market tier to mega-rich City, which can offer salaries and bonuses far beyond the London club. They can also point to a league table that places Tottenham only four points behind Liverpool in second, and only two behind City.
Yet Baldini and, to a lesser extent, Villas-Boas, will be judged by Spurs fans – and, no doubt, the demanding chairman Daniel Levy – on the success of the new signings. On all these issues, the jury is firmly out.