Manchester United position preview: center-back

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are arguably the top center-back tandem in the world

In competition with the wide players and strikers at Manchester United, it is perhaps center-back where the club has both the most quality and depth. Led by captain and Barclays Player of the Season in 2010-11 Nemanja Vidic, this is a position that conjures up almost no fear amongst United supporters - even for the harshest critics. Alongside Vidic, is former United and England skipper Rio Ferdinand - forming a duo that is arguably the best in the world. Providing cover is a trio of talented and young defenders that are viable candidates to eventually succeed Vida and Rio at Old Trafford: Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Jonny Evans. As a whole, the unit is nearly ideal in having quality experience that provides leadership while also having promising youth that potentially may offer very little drop off if injury strikes the starters. 

A look at 2010-11

Here is a table that provides pertinent statistics for Premier League action from last season for each of United's center-backs (via Opta). A reminder that Jones played for Blackburn Rovers last season - 18 matches of which were played as a holding midfielder. 

The Busby Babe

Apps

Tackles per/game

Aerial Dual Success

Clearances per/game

Blocks per/game

Interceptions per game

Fouls per/game

Pass comp. %

Vidic

35

2.1

67%

9.5

0.9

2.6

1.1

81%

Ferdinand

19

1.3

75%

6.5

0.4

2.6

0.2

82%

Smalling

11(5)

1.4

75%

6.5

0.6

1.3

0.8

77%

Jones

24(2)

2.9

63%

4.6

0.6

2.9

1.0

63%

Evans

11(2)

1.6

46%

5.6

0.6

3.1

1.0

84%

More on each player after the jump...

NEMANJA VIDIC

Since coming over from Spartak Moscow in January 2006 for £7 million, the imposing Serbian has gone on to establish himself as one of the elite center-backs in the world - if not the best. At the age of 29, Vidic is coming off a season that was arguably as good as any during his time at Old Trafford - it included lifting the Premier League trophy at season's end in his first season as United's captain. 

The basic scouting report on Vidic is that he's powerful in aerial challenges and crunching in tackle. This is exemplified by his outstanding 2.1 tackles per game and his ridiculously supreme 9.5 clearances per game from last season. While not league-leading, his 67% aerial challenge success rate is very good, especially when considering the sheer number of aerial duals he is involved in on a weekly basis. In the direct play of the Premier League, Vidic is essentially the prototype at center-back - he's able to erase target-forwards out of matches when crosses are whipped in from open play and he consistently wins duals on set-pieces, whether he is man-marking or zonally marking the most dangerous areas of the box. His 5 league from last season also displays his threat on the other end of the pitch on United's own set-pieces. If he has one weakness, it is that his pace is average at best for a center-back - he can be vulnerable to balls played in behind him when he is forced to turn and track back. 

For the upcoming season, Vida is once again set to be the skipper. His dominant physical ability, excellent ability to read the game, and his leadership provide a foundation piece for a side that seeks to once again win the Premier League and reach the UEFA Champions League final. He has proved to be incredibly durable throughout his career and he may be asked once again to play in nearly 50 matches this season. 

RIO FERDINAND

After coming to United during the summer of 2002, in a then record fee for a British player, Ferdinand has overcome a shaky start at Old Trafford to become a vital member of sides that have won countless trophies during his time at the club. Because he is not as durable as he once was, the 32-year-old no longer wears the captain's armband for both club and country. Nonetheless, he is still considered to be world-class when he is fit and he mostly likely will be first-choice this upcoming season whenever he is available. 

While having been an excellent athlete throughout his career, Ferdinand's biggest strength perhaps is his cerebral approach to the game. He is an exceptional reader of the game and this can be displayed by his 2.6 interceptions per game and his absurdly low 0.2 fouls per game - he rarely is forced into last-ditch tackling. As mentioned, he has the physical capabilities to excel in the Premier League as his 75% aerial challenge rate can attest to. Furthermore, his technical ability is very strong for a center-back and he is capable of igniting the attack from the back - whether it be an assured square pass, a splitting pass to one of United's creative outlets, or a sublime ball over the top for a striker. 

CHRIS SMALLING

The 21-year-old Englishman officially came to United during last summer's transfer window for a fee believed to be in the region of £12, depending on the source. While being a somewhat surprising signing at the time of the agreement, January 2010, Smalling went on to become a pleasant one when he ably deputised for an injury-plagued Ferdinand last season. It can be argued that without youngster's contribution during the 2010-11 season, United would not have reached the level of success that they did. Smalling comes into the season as first-choice backup to Ferdinand and Vidic - he also showed value in his versatility with a splendid performance at right-back during Sunday's Community Shield match versus Manchester City.  

Statistics back up the comparison that Smalling's ability and style strongly resembles Ferdinand. During the past season, Smalling showed identical ability on aerial challenges and clearances per game. Perhaps the one area of his game that Ferdinand still favorably compares is in the mental aspect of the game - Smalling is quite behind in his interceptions per game and fouls per game. However, it should be noted again that Ferdinand's foul rate and disciplinary record in regards to bookings is beyond exceptional. Smalling actually favors somewhat favorably to the experienced Vidic in fouls. 

Overall, Smalling is an exciting prospect and he appears at the current moment to be a worthy successor to Ferdinand in due time. Like the former England skipper, Smalling is athletic, strong in the air, and also hints at the ability to ignite attacks from the back. Furthermore, his displays at right-back during the pre-season show that he may provide solid cover at right-back for the da Silva twins. 

PHIL JONES

After coming over from Blackburn Rovers this summer for a reported £16.5 million fee, the 19-year-old defender is seen along with his U-21 England center-back partner - Smalling - as the possible future for United in defense. For the upcoming season, Jones will surely provide cover at center-back. However, he also can provide versatility by playing right-back and at the base of a midfield. In his 24 matches for Blackburn last season, the Englishman spent 18 of those shielding his defense as a holding midfielder.

Despite being reported to only be 5'11", Jones showed aerial competency by winning 64% of his challenges last season - many further away from the penalty box where defenders typically have a higher rate of success. Jones' rate of 2.9 interceptions per game from last season is impressive and it hints at a player that is both quick on his feet and in thought. His 63% passing rate may be somewhat alarming, but when considering Blackburn's extreme direct style of play under Sam Allardyce last season, who Jones played most of his minutes for, it is something that can be dismissed if he shows competent ability during the early stages of his United career. The versatile footballer showed well during the pre-season as he acclimated himself to the club - his strength, pace, and ability make him an exciting prospect for the future.

JONNY EVANS

After a promising start to his United career, the defender from Belfast struggled last season while deputising for the injured Rio Ferdinand at season's beginning. When Ferdinand was injured once again later in the season, Evans fell behind Smalling in the pecking order at center-back. While still being perceived by some as having the potential to play at the highest level, the 23-year-old has seemingly become 5th choice at center-back and he will have to claw his way back up this upcoming season. 

Evans showed himself to be competent in tackle last season (1.6/game), exceptional at intercepting passes (3.1/game), and assured in igniting the attack from the back (84% pass completion). However, his 46% aerial challenge rate is extremely alarming - being competent in the air is a requisite in the Premier League, especially while playing for a side that expects to compete for multiple trophies on an annual basis. This rate is heavily weighted by his well-known struggles during last season's beginning, and the rate improved towards the season's end - however - it is something that must be improved or Evans might be plying his trade elsewhere come next summer. 

Note: Here are links to our previews  for full-back and goalkeeper

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