United fans will hope that Rio Ferdinand’s catastrophic backpass for Dirk Kuyt’s opening goal during England’s 2-2 draw in the Netherlands this week is not a forbear for the defender’s season to come. Following on from indifferent pre-season defensive displays in which United conceded too many sloppy goals, the defender’s mistake was a return to the error strewn days of his youth. But Ferdinand’s form is crucial to the United cause – the central defender, who had such a commanding season last time out, will have to marshal a defence shorn of Edwin van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic through injury for the opening games of the season.
England manager Fabio Capello brushed off Ferdinand’s error as a “stupid mistake” and born of over-confidence. “They were two presents. But I prefer to give presents in non-competitive games,” Capello said of the errors not just by Ferdinand, but City’s new midfielder Gareth Barry. “These were just two stupid mistakes. Two silly mistakes. The mistakes of this evening I can accept. I don’t accept mistakes where the position is wrong or if I try doing something in training and then, afterwards, I don’t see it being put into practice on the pitch”
In truth Ferdinand rarely switches off with such disastrous results for club or country as he did a decade ago or in Amsterdam on Wednesday. It is the imperious form of more recent times that Wobbly Gob must reach in the opening weeks of the season. With Ben Foster clearly nervous against Chelsea, Johnny Evans still learning and Wes Brown rarely fit, United’s defence could lack the experience and solidity of last season in the opening games.
In addition to Vidic and van der Sar, United will also be without Rafael da Silva and Gary Neville for the opening match of the Premier League season, while Wes Brown has only just returned to training. John O’Shea will continue at right-back but his lack of pace and positional sense has been exposed on more than one occasion. Certainly, right-back is one area of the team that Ferguson faces a selection headache.
A poser for Ferguson could be the form of Rafael’s brother Fabio, who may come straight into the mix. The right-footed left-back’s lively cameo appearance against Chelsea followed on from similarly electric performances in pre-season. Indeed, anybody following United’s reserve team last season would not be far wrong in asserting that it is Fabio, not Rafael, that is the better of the two Brazilian brothers.
In lieu of Vidic, and without Gary Neville, Ferdinand is likely to take on both the mantle of captain and leader of the defensive unit against Birmingham on Sunday and Burnley on Wednesday. United let Liverpool get off the a flier last season. One senses that the team cannot afford to do so again. Ferdinand will be central to that plan.