Dropped by his club. Dropped by his country. Partially written off by the press. Even the fans starting to hope younger players replace him in the starting XI. Yet, Rio’s response has been to quietly (unless you’re signed up to Twitter and happen to follow him) get on with it and take his chance when recalled to the team. So much so that his current form is not far off some of the best football he’s played for the club. In the past 6/7 weeks I think Rio’s been the best defender in the country.
At the start of October, two weeks before City handed out a 6-1 thrashing, Rio was being linked with a move to the MLS for the summer of 2012. A month later and with Rio taking a lot of the blame for the City result, he’s dropped to the bench for a trip to Everton and Fergie picks some choice words in his pre-match press conference for the Otelul Galati game to warn Rio:
“What I explained to Rio the other day is simply this: That we have two young centre-halves coming through and I’m have very happy to have four of them, and I hope to keep the four of them for a long time.
Rio is almost 33 now and obviously he has lost a yard of pace he had five years ago. That doesn’t mean to say he can’t tailor his game in a different way.
We’ve all faced that deciding moment in your career when you realise you have to change your game. I did it myself as a player when I lost that real sharpness and tailored my game differently. Rio will do the same and he’ll be fine. He will still play a big part for us.”
These quotes prompted “Rio no longer first choice” stories to pop up all over the place. Fergie though appeared to be able to look into the future – “He will still play a big part for us”.
He was recalled for the Galati game but it was at home to Sunderland at the start of November that he was paired with Vidic for the first time in the league since the opening game of the season. The pair played four games together in a row – keeping three clean sheets and only conceding once (at home to Newcastle from a penalty that never was).
Vidic naturally likes to attack the ball in the air and on the ground, allowing Rio to sweep everything else up. It’s no surprise really that Vidic seems to bring the best out of Ferdinand and indeed his form drastically has picked up. With Vidic out for the rest of the season, just how Rio would perform without him will be key for United; even more so that in the first two games without Nemanja, Rio’s been paired with the much maligned Evans – one of them would have to play the role of a leader.
Fortunately, Rio seems to have relished being the senior central figure at the back. Quite uncharacteristically for him, he’s been the one going to win headers and being something of a physical presence. Even today against QPR he got booked for dissent, not good to see, but that verbal presence is something Nemanja’s so crucial for.
Chalkboard 1: Rio’s clearances against Wolves and QPR
Shown above are Rio’s clearances in the last two games – 20 against Wolves and 14 against QPR, more than any other United player in either game and a clear step up in Vida’s absence. In fact, quite surprisingly, Rio’s made more clearances than any other United player this season. As a result of Rio becoming the ‘attacker’, it’s allowed Jonny Evans to settle in and not have to worry about being the defender to attack the ball. Jonny’s been able to play his own game – a nice mix of Rio’s and Vidic’s and as a result, he’s been flawless in the past two games, particularly against QPR when he and Rio were described by Fergie as “immense”.
So in Vidic’s absence, Rio’s stood out and stepped up. However, his natural game, the things he’s become famous for also appear to be returning – quality in possession and ability to read the game. Fergie was right, Rio has lost some of his pace and he’ll never get that back, but aged 33 and with over 600 first team appearances made, that’s not surprising.
There’s only one other player in the squad who makes more interceptions per game than Rio, Michael Carrick. United have been blessed with players who just naturally understand the game so well and Rio’s amongst them. Often he’ll coax an opposition player into making an error or, rather than go to ground, he’ll knick the ball at the perfect moment in one clean move.
Chalkboard 2: Rio’s passing and interceptions vs. Newcastle
I’ve picked out the Newcastle game for the chalkboard above – aside from Rio’s 5 interceptions it shows just how good and expansive his passing can be. Few centre backs have the ability to regular spot a correct ball forward and execute it like Rio can. Recently he’s even embarked on a few throwback runs forward with the ball.
Rio was for me the most complete defender about 4-5 years ago and possibly unrivalled in world football. Injuries and age have seen him decline but unlike many predicted, he doesn’t appear finished yet, in fact he doesn’t seem even remotely close. I think it says a lot about his character and drive that his response to being dropped was not to complain, nor become disheartened. Instead, he appears to have treated it as a challenge and it’s one he’s winning. It’s been a classy response from a classy player.
It’s possible that his being overlooked for England has allowed him to focus on United. For me, Rio should retire from international football; not because he’s not good enough (he definitely is) but because England appear keen to move onto a new generation. Having the captaincy taken off him and given back to Terry was the ultimate kick-in-the-balls – amusingly Terry’s in some of the worst form of his career; Capello surely has to drop Terry now. No doubt Rio will want to be at Euro 2012 but hopefully that won’t become too much of a distraction for him.
The future may well be Jones, Smalling and Evans but Rio’s there to stay and even if this does turn out to be his final season at United, at least he looks like following in Edwin’s footsteps and going out playing some of the best football of his career.
With a bit of luck I’ve not jinxed him! I doubt Rio will be able to play every game, he’ll need resting at certain times but maybe the Europa League will allow that to happen. For now though, he appears fit and is easing through games. He’s probably the best centre back I’ve seen and maybe United’s best ever. As long as he keeps performing at his current level he can promote his app and magazine on Twitter as much as he likes because he’s doing all the talking that matters on the pitch!