In the 2007-08 season, Manchester United’s defence was arguably the finest of Sir Alex Ferguson’s nearly 25-year reign at the club.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic formed an impenetrable barrier through the middle, while Patrice Evra and (mostly) Wes Brown delivered pace and physicality in equal measure on the flanks.
In goal United Edwin van der Sar was Ferguson’s best since Peter Schmeichel – and between the five of them they conspired to keep clean sheets more often than not (31 in 57 games) and make United, the once irresistible force, now more of an immovable object.
While Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney all too often took the plaudits, it was arguably United’s defence that had the most influence on their winning a Premier League and Champions League double that season.
But as time passed, so the powers of an injury-plagued Ferdinand have appeared to wane. At 32 a player once considered the ultimate thoroughbred defender is looking increasingly susceptible to speed of play, and speed of thought.
Brown too has been ravaged by injury, and made just one Premier League start this season. The word is he and fellow utility man John O’Shea will make their Old Trafford exits this summer, and to be frank a United harbouring serious European ambition will barely miss them.
With Van der Sar off into the sunset, and fresh from a second humbling in two years from Barcelona, Ferguson entered this transfer window in little doubt he needed to strengthen defensively.
If we are to believe what we read, he’s acted with a ruthlessness that could lay the foundations for another decade of success at United.
Phil Jones, the 19-year-old Blackburn defender wanted by at least Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, appears to have chosen United. Writing in The Guardian, Daniel Taylor said Ferguson had promised the player’s parents he’d provide a nurturing environment for his talent. How telling that conversation may prove.
The deal, if it happens, represents a major coup for United. And not only that, it gives Ferdinand the kind of motivation that might just see him return to the form he showed in that 2007-08 campaign.
United are also closing in on Atletico Madrid goalkeeper David de Gea, the 20-year-old Ferguson believes has exactly the combination of composure and talent he’s been looking in a replacement for Van der Sar.
When Schmeichel left him in 1999, Ferguson took six years to fill his giant boots with a worthy successor in Van der Sar. He won’t make the same mistake again.
When you consider Evra and Vidic still have a good few years left at the peak of their powers, and the emerging talents of the Da Silva brothers, fullbacks Rafael and Fabio, United’s defensive future suddenly looks extremely bright indeed.