Zehan Arif makes his OOTB debut with this tribute to one of his heroes, Nemanja Vidic.
On the 29th of January, Nemanja Vidić officially announced his retirement at the age of 34. Affectionately known as Vida, his announcement brings an end to what was an injury-ravaged spell with Inter Milan after joining from Manchester United on a Bosman. Footballers are remembered by the legacy they leave behind them, and Vidić’s legacy is dominated by his 8 and a half years at Manchester United during which he won 5 Premier League titles, 1 Champions League, and 1 Club World Cup among other titles and personal accolades.
As an ardent United supporter, Vida’s retirement has afforded me a nostalgic recapitulation of his brilliant career. Vidić was the immovable object in the heart of United’s defence always heading crosses and set pieces away from the danger zone when his team was under pressure. An aggressive, no-nonsense tackler; he would always put his body on the line with gaping wounds and broken noses being a consistent reminder of his commitment. Who could forget that crunching tackle on Kyle Walker or that double tackle against FC Copenhagen? He embodied the term warrior, even in the most literal sense – Fergie, in his autobiography, claims that he was a proud Serb and wanted to enlist himself to fight in the Kosovo conflict! One hopes this serves as an adequate riposte to the critics questioning his commitment to the Serbian National Team and Serbia (as a country).
If not his playing style, the circumstances of his arrival to United would surely endear him to the supporters. After spells at Red Star Belgrade and Spartak Moscow, Vidić (according to Jamie Carragher) rejected Liverpool to join United. In a sport where goal scorers and creators demand sky-high fees and in contrast to today’s inflated transfer market, Vidić arrived as a £7 million January signing: a bona-fide bargain buy. To put his arrival into context, Manchester United hadn’t won the league title for 3 years and 2 of those years were dominated by Chelsea (under Mourinho). To make matters worse, he didn’t exactly have a smooth start to his United career; his first start against Blackburn Rovers was a 4-3 reverse wherein Vidić was outmuscled by an aggressive side. Paul Scholes, later, did admit that there were a few questions in the dressing room regarding Vida’s ability. At that time, Vidić didn’t possess the physicality that was required in the English Premier League; Scholes said,
“There was nothing of him when he arrived. He was skinny and relatively easy to push off the ball”.
It is a testament to Vidić’s commitment to improve, that over the next year he bulked himself up and gained the strength and physicality required to thrive in the league. Add to this a solid pre-season before the 2006-07 season, and we have Vidić silencing his critics while Manchester United win their first league title in 4 years. Over the next 4 seasons, United would go on to win 3 titles and Vida’s solid partnership with Rio Ferdinand at the back was the bedrock on which these titles were won. Together, Vida and Rio formed the best defensive partnership in England and possibly in Europe; at par with the Steve Bruce-Gary Pallister partnership for United in the early 90s. They perfectly complemented and brought out the best in each other, Rio was the silky sweeper and Vida was the tough tackler (though they were both complete defenders, I’d say Vida was tougher and Rio was better with the ball at his feet). To provide a brief indicator of their partnership in numbers, following is the number of goals conceded by United in the Premier League from 2006-11:
2006/07: 27 goals
2007/08: 22 goals
2008/09: 24 goals
2009/10: 28 goals
2010/11: 37 goals
In these 5 seasons United won 4 Premier League Titles, reached the finals of the Champions League thrice (winning once), won 1 Club World Cup, 2 League Cups and 3 Community Shields. Off the pitch, they were close friends as well which reflects in Rio’s touching tribute to Vidić:
“..I’m always asked about our partnership, did you do specific training etc….Not really no, it was something that just worked very naturally. He was very aggressive, loved attacking the 1st ball in or out of the box, getting right into the opposing strikers & I liked the sweeping up and covering type stuff…but our partnership brought out the best in our games and made us strive harder to be the best. My favourite partner to play alongside – YES.
He became a defender that was feared, he could fight with the most physical, he crunched into tackles, he attacked the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen….but as he will tell you with a smile, he could also play with the ball too, which made him complete & a great defender. Because he was so good in the aggressive/attacking the ball areas people probably looked over his ability with the ball to his annoyance! As a friend he is made of the top stuff, always honest & thoughtful but also game for a laugh (when he is ready)!”
It was only fitting that both these players would leave United at the same time, bringing to an end their stellar partnership. When discussing Vida’s career, one would be remiss if one forgot his bête noire: Fernando Torres and Liverpool. At Vidić’s peak, between September 2008 and September 2010, he faced Liverpool 5 times in which he was red-carded in 3 consecutive matches! In the same period, Torres managed to score in 3 consecutive matches! Also, 2 of Vidić’s 3 red cards came in matches where he was up against Torres. Without a doubt, Vidić did struggle to contain Torres at his peak mainly because Torres knew how to exploit his weaknesses: with a nimble touch, Torres knew exactly when he had to run with pace and accelerate to beat his opponent.
Although Vida’s final three seasons were marred by injury troubles, he did go on to captain the team admirably (having been given the armband in the 2010-11 season). Even without the armband, Vidić would always lead by example and give his heart, sweat, and blood in every match he played. Robin Van Persie’s observation that “Nemanja puts his head where other players are scared to put their feet” aptly exemplifies his war-like commitment on the pitch. It is perhaps fitting that Vida was left with a bloodied nose in his final match as a Manchester United player against Southampton. Over the 300 matches that Vidić played in, he has the highest winning percentage of any United player with more than 100 appearances and has the highest winning percentage among all players with more than 200 Premier League appearances ( according to Opta). This puts him firmly in the pantheon of great United defenders along with Jaap Stam, Steve Bruce and Rio Ferdinand among others.
His time with the Serbian team may not be as glorious as his United spell, but Vidić did showcase his outstanding defending as part of the “Famous Four” defence of the Serbia and Montenegro National Team: conceding only one goal in ten games of the World Cup 2006 Qualifying Campaign.
Manchester United’s decline in recent seasons, especially in defence, shows how valuable Vida was and speaks volumes about the current crop of defenders plying their trade at Old Trafford. Of the current crop, only Chris ‘Mike’ Smalling has been able to perform consistently and at a relatively high level, though nowhere close to Vida’s level (yet). The importance of another player of the mould of Vidić is imperative, and such a signing would hopefully have the same impact on Smalling that Vida’s signing had on Rio.
What does the future hold for Vidić? During his farewell in 2014, he said “Physically I will leave but my heart will always be at this club“; at the same time the club still have immense respect for him and the fans love his personality. Vidić understands Manchester United FC, and the club would do well to use this experience. An ambassadorial or coaching role isn’t too difficult to envision. Just imagine, Vidić coaching the next best central defensive pairing! While all this is speculation, what is certain is his cult status among the United faithful and the everlasting memories he has left for us.
As MUFC posted on twitter: No Nonsense. No Prisoners. No Fear. Viva Vidić.
Written by Zehan Arif