It could hardly be a more devastating blow; the news that captain Nemanja Vidić will miss two months of the season after undergoing a second operation on his damaged right knee. Vidić missed five months of the previous campaign having suffered a double tear to medial and cruciate ligaments in Manchester United’s match against FC Basel in Switzerland last December.
It is likely to be late December before the giant Serbian defender is fully match-fit once again, with the 30-year-old having looked decidedly rusty in the opening six matches of the campaign. Vidić will miss at least seven Premier League games with the meniscus tear and three Champions League matches.
Vidić’s injury comes at the worst possible time, with Rio Ferdinand visibly hobbling through last Sunday’s victory over Liverpool at Anfield. Meanwhile, Jonny Evans has only recently returned from an ankle operation – an injury that the Irishman admitted earlier this month is still causing pain and stiffness. Adding to a lengthening injury list, Chris Smalling will not return until October after tearing a thigh muscle, while Phil Jones is suffering both with a persistent back problem and a strained right calf.
“Nemanja Vidic has had a meniscus operation on his right knee and will be out for around eight weeks,” read a drab club statement on Tuesday.
“Sir Alex, as a precautionary measure, rested Vidic at the weekend, after he complained of tightness in his knee, however, further medical investigation revealed the underlying problem. The central defender was operated on this week and will be sidelined for about eight weeks.”
Vidić’s operation leaves Sir Alex Ferguson with just two senior central defenders in Ferdinand and Evans: the former struggling through Sunday’s game and Evans short of sharpness. Indeed, it is likely that the Irishman will play against Newcastle United on Wednesday as Ferguson seeks to bring the 24-year-old up to speed. Evans will now play a crucial role in the run up to Christmas – just as the Belfast-born player did following Vidić’s injury at Basel last season.
Yet, whatever the numbers at Ferguson’s disposal, a third defensive injury crisis in as many seasons begs plenty of questions. Not least whether the club’s policy of spending big on attacking players this summer – Shinji Kagawa, Robin van Persie, Nick Powell, Ángelo Henríquez – was the right one, especially with so many of Ferguson’s defenders having a poor injury record in recent times.
While Ferguson brought Alexander Büttner to the club in support of, or competition for, Patrice Evra, Rafael da Silva is the only other United defender to have not suffered injury this season. That in itself is a bonus, with the Brazilian youngster having developed a well-earned reputation for lengthy spells on the sideline.
Then there is he vexed question of squad planning. One injury crisis is unfortunate and two suspicious; three in as many seasons begins to look like the manager has failed to learn from history. Many have made the same observation about United’s central midfield.
Ferguson’s problems will exacerbate further if Michael Carrick is forced into central defence once again. The 30-year-old struggled during United’s defeat to Everton on the opening day, and then once again for United’s narrow win over Fulham at Old Trafford.
After all, while Carrick and partner Ryan Giggs were thoroughly dominated by Liverpool’s midfield last Sunday, it is not as if Ferguson has a bounty of riches in the engine room from which to extricate Carrick if necessary.
Yet, Vidić’s loss may become a youngsters gain, with Scott Wooten and Michael Keane also now in contention both for the Capital One Cup tie against the Geordies on Wednesday, and United’s fixture with Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford next weekend. Wooten spent much of last season on loan at Peterborough United, while Keane made his competitive début for the club in last season’s Carling Cup.
“I’ve been really impressed with young Michael Keane,” said Evans of the 19-year-old who won the Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year last season.
“I think his brother has been getting more of the headlines over the last couple of years. Will’s also a fantastic player but obviously he’s got an injury at the minute. I’ve been really impressed with Michael when he’s stepped up into training with us and I can see him getting a bit of a run-out if things go well.”
On a more serious note, however, United’s ability to challenge on all fronts this season will surely be hampered by defensive shortages. The open midfield deployed this season, together with frequent changes in the Reds’ back-four, have led to six goals being shipped already, with far greater challenges ahead.
Unfortunately for Ferguson, while United’s schedule is packed during Vidić’s absence, the Reds also face some testing opponents. In addition to Spurs next weekend, United face Chelsea, Arsenal, and visit Newcastle before November is out. The Derby with Manchester City at Eastlands is scheduled for 8 December.
Whether Vidić ever returns to the form that made him one of Europe’s finest defenders is now surely open to question. Rustiness in the opening matches of the campaign was understandable. So too a permanent dip in performance levels or, more specifically, pace cannot be unrealistic.
Add Ferdinand’s age into the mix and Ferguson may be forced to phase out two of his stalwarts this season; providing the pair’s replacements can keep themselves fit that is. Smalling’s pace and power, Evans progression, and the multi-talented Jones offer much promised. None of it can be fulfilled from the physio’s bench.