As the second half of the season gets underway, the once fearless Nemanja Vidić is now tentative about his return to full time action for the Reds. The Serbian defender has endured a frustrating time since originally injuring his right knee against FC Basel in December 2011 in what has proven to an an incredibly unlucky injury for player and club.
Back then the Serbian was caught in a tangle with Basel striker Marco Streller, and tore not only his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), but also the medial and lateral collateral ligaments (MCL and LCL) too. To underline the defender’s poor luck, it is extremely rare for a player to tear the lateral and medial ligaments together due to the forces required to damage both structures at the same time.
Vidić then required further surgery early this season to repair damage to the meniscus after experiencing problems in training, thus completing ‘the unhappy triad’ of tears to the ACL, MCL and medial meniscus, three structures in the knee that are commonly damaged in professional athletes.
The defender’s surgery in September 2012 came shortly after the player had claimed that his knee was “in perfect condition” and that the partnership with Rio Ferdinand could once again be “the best in the Premier League”. Surgery proved to be huge blow to United, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson having become too familiar with defensive injury crises over the last four seasons.
Vidić returned on 15 December when the player made a late entry as a substitute against Sunderland, but is yet to pair up again with Ferdinand. The duo has created a formidable partnership over recent years, but injuries and age beg the question whether they will be able to regularly play together again in future?
After all, Vidić will now be wary of returning too early, with the consequences severe. United’s coaches already seem to be adapting the player’s first team involvement. The Serbian also says that he is now consulting with doctors before each game after suffering an adverse reaction following United’s match with Swansea City. In fact the player isn’t nearly as confident as he once was about his knee.
“The doctor is managing the games [I play],” said the Serbian. “Over the first two or three months I have to really look at the games I can play because sometimes I might have a reaction. This is a process I have to go through. I am glad I have managed to play after three months. It is nice to be on the pitch and playing games.”
Having been troubled for over a year, injury is now bound to have an impact not just physically, but psychologically on the tough 31-year-old defender, particularly after apparently being rushed back too soon last Autumn. Vidić will know that the risk of re-injury is a lot higher in players who have previously torn knee ligaments.
Furthermore, having been so unlucky in damaging the LCL, Vidić will be wary of his own personal fragility. It is debatable whether the player will ever regain the form of old.
To that point, a recent JUMP-ACL study looked at risk factors for ACL tears and provided some interesting findings, including the fact that certain body positions in relation to the ground, and postures such as hip flexion, are strongly associated with this damage.
This research is particularly interesting when you consider the stances adopted by players when engaged in defending – typically bent forward with knees and hips flexed to lower the centre of gravity in preparation to spring forward and intercept.
Vidić may also be wary of bending his damaged knee too far for fear of tearing the repaired meniscus again, and of sharp cutting maneuvers that can result in twisting the joint and threatening re-injury to the collateral ligaments.
The waterlogged pitch at Old Trafford against West Bromwich Albion on 29 December, which underwent a pitch inspection by officials, will no doubt have been a red flag for a player fearful of re-injuring old wounds. And over the Christmas period Sir Alex Ferguson rotated Vidić and Ferdinand by partnering one or the other with Jonny Evans.
During its peak, the reliable Vidić-Ferdinand partnership allowed one central defender to roam forward, knowing that the other would hold back and provide cover if an attack broke down.
However, with question marks hanging over the pace and agility of the ageing duo, it may now be sensible to play only one of them, along with Evans. The Reds are in a fortunate position to have all defenders back in contention while Vidić makes his gradual return to action.
But after a tumultuous first half of the season – defensively at least – Ferguson may also want consistency in his back four, posing interesting selection question in defence following two clean sheets on the run and with Real Madrid not too far off on the horizon.