Much was made yesterday of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's comments in regards to defender Rio Ferdinand. The general reaction from the media was that the United boss was suggesting the former United and England captain is no longer an automatic first-choice selection. Fergie specifically mentioned Rio's decline in pace in recent years and that the 32-year-old would need to tailor his game in response. Here is what Fergie shared:
"I explained to Rio the other day simply this - we have two young centre-backs coming through and I'm happy to have four and hope I can keep four of them for a long time," said the boss at his press conference at Old Trafford."Rio's almost 33 and has obviously lost the yard of pace he had five years ago but that doesn't mean to say he can't tailor his game into a different game where he doesn't rely on pace. We've all faced that, the decisive moment in your career when you realise you have to change your game. I did that myself when I lost some sharpness so I tailored my game differently. Rio will do the same and he'll be fine. I don't think there will be any problem. In his time with us, eight years or so now, he's been a fantastic, consistent performer, top-class and absolutely brilliant. Rio will rearrange his game a little bit but not drastically. He's still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of his use of the ball. He has a great presence and can still tackle and head the ball. All that's changed, and maybe he's realising it now, is the electric pace he had two or three years ago. He'll change, there's no problem with that, and he'll play a big part."
Perhaps in response to these comments, a report by ESPN Soccernet says that Rio has no intention on leaving United in January. He has recently been linked to Tottenham Hotspur or the United States' MLS for a possible move in the next transfer window. I don't pretend to know how his mind works but I don't see why he would want to leave the club in the heart of the current season.
I have to be honest -- is it just me or does anyone else feel that the traditional media may have been reaching a little bit from Fergie's comments? Maybe it is just my lack of reading comprehension or intuitive sense but I did not get the definite impression that Rio is no longer first-choice from those specific comments. Perhaps he no longer is but these comments certainly seem to praise the center-back while also addressing his declining pace in a blunt manner. But they do not specifically say he has been demoted.
In my humble opinion, if Rio is no longer first-choice, that is fine. I do believe captain Nemanja Vidic should be an automatic selection though because he is still one of the top three center-backs in the world when healthy and fit. If Rio returns to the form of the run-in from last season -- when he returned from injury and provided class performances -- then he will likely will be entrusted by Fergie again this season for United's 'big matches.' However, the Reds are fortunate to have two extremely bright youngsters in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. It is quite possible that Fergie simply implied that he has four terrific center-backs but that Rio can still contribute to the squad if he finds a way to competently cope with his declining pace. Competition for spots at United being fierce should already be understood.
So much is made of being 'first-choice' and one's selection for a particular match. The fact is, big clubs like United are battling on multiple fronts deep into every season. Thus, squad rotation is a fact of life. It is physically demanding and draining to continually play two matches a week over a ten-month season. Rio will play when healthy. So will Smalling, Jones, and Jonny Evans. Whoever Fergie feels is playing best will get selected for the league title-deciders, Cup finals, and European knock-out stage matches. It is as simple as that unless Fergie specifically mentions something different.