Rio Ferdinand has never struck me as a Paolo Maldini type footballer. Pace, and the ability to out-run opposition strikers is a rare asset for a centre back to have and something that's been associated with Ferdinand for much of his career. Now, at nearly 34 and with his career edging closer to its end, it seems that it's increasingly difficult for the media and fans to rationally analyse him without bringing his age into it.
For some reason when a player turns 30 there becomes a need to justify his position in a team. Football's becoming a young man's game with 'wonderkids' cropping up all the time at a seemingly younger age all the time. So much has the attitude to age in the game changed that if you've not 'made it' by the time you're 20/21, you're deemed not good enough. Patience is sadly not something that football, the business, can afford these days.
The concept of age within the game is an odd one. Fans naturally enjoy watching young footballers progress into the first team and afford them some license to make errors. There is an old adage in sport that says 'if you're good enough you're old enough'. This has always been applied to young players but rarely, maybe even never, to footballers at the other end of their career and when you think about it, that's odd. For example some cite the fact that Scholes still starts for United as "desperate" because of his age - rather than actually addressing the fact he remains good enough despite his age.
For Ferdinand, there are two parties judging him - United fans and England fans. He's now in his eleventh season at United and has (in my opinion) been the best centre back the club has had in my lifetime. Aside from being an elegant ball-playing defender, he's grown and matured at the club which has shown him up to be an excellent leader - far from the glitzy, flashy, loud-mouthed youngster that he once was.
Being mature and a role model doesn't necessarily mean that in terms of footballing ability you're still good enough. The famous 4-3 win over Man City three years ago highlighted that Rio was losing his pace. To be able to play at the very top he'd have to adjust, he'd have to play a bit deeper and give strikers a tad more space as he can no longer match them for speed on the turn.
Adjusting was something that took time but looking back, the transition period proved relatively easy. Ferdinand has always read the game well and seldom gone to ground to make a tackle. Stepping back made sense then, he can see where the ball is and can pick and choose his moments to step up and get closer to opposition strikers. As this way of playing became more natural, his form returned.
Last season was possibly even one of his best for United. Ferdinand excelled when partnered (23 times overall) with Jonny Evans, whose style seemed to complement him. Evans is not as direct a defender as Nemanja Vidic nor as dominant but unlike Ferdinand he likes to attack headers and doesn't mind sliding along the ground. Ironically, it's Evans and the other young centre backs that pose the biggest threat to Ferdinand. This season, his form hasn't dipped (contrary to what the press will tell you) - his hiding by Bale was one of pace and was no surprise, he could have done nothing differently. That one incident has apparently meant he's in 'bad form' - not only can few defenders keep up with Bale in his stride but actually Ferdinand's form is good. His performance at Anfield, when he was at his imperious best, was outstanding.
There will of course come a time when Evans, Jones or Smalling will be better than Ferdinand. Smalling seems the obvious replacement and his imminent return to fitness will be a big threat to Ferdinand's position. Realistically though, United's number five is more than capable of performing at a high level with the club for at least this season, particularly if the midfield and fullbacks remember how to defend properly.
England's a different matter though. Ignoring the ridiculous scenario surrounding Ferdinand, John Terry and Ashley Cole, England squads should work on a two year cycle. Despite being in form and good enough for England, reality suggests that come the World Cup in 2014, Rio won't be one of the best English centre backs and therefore for the purpose of continuity, familiarity and building squad camaraderie it's understandable that he's not in the current England squad. And, selfishly, it means United can keep him fit and rested.
Unsurprisingly, Gary Neville had it spot on last Monday on Sky. Not only did he point out that the blame for Spurs' goals shouldn't lie solely with Ferdinand but his rant was a timely reminder that Ferdinand's actually still a pretty decent footballer. His fragile body is susceptible to injury and for that reason he almost certainly won't last as long as Giggs, Scholes or any of the age-defying centre backs of the last 10 years. When fit, he remains a valuable asset for United both in his playing ability and leadership qualities. Age can help explain a decline but should never alone be cited as a reason to not pick a player.
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