When Rio Ferdinand tweeted on Christmas Day that he was fussing over his Christmas lunch, he let slip that he was not with the Manchester United party who were en route to their team hotel near Hull.
Ferdinand was fit to play against Hull City, but once again David Moyes did not select him in his match squad. After a decade of being a near ever-present, Ferdinand, 35, has started only seven of United 19 league games so far, yet it was his performance in a Uefa Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 10 that raised the alarm, with Alex Teixeira leaving Ferdinand flailing.
“Rio Ferdinand’s decision-making, the chances he has taken, it is ridiculous,” his former teammate turned TV pundit Roy Keane said. “It is like his debut tonight.”
Ferdinand suspected he would not be playing every game this season. Indeed, he was left out of the away leg in Ukraine not only because he was injured, but because Moyes thinks it wise not to play him every three days. Yet, things have not worked out as he had hoped as his United career appears to be coming to a close.
Ferdinand started the season with a testimonial match and a one-year contract extension until June 2014. His form last season earned him the latter and he stayed, despite speculation that he would like to play in America.
He loves many aspects of American culture and sees himself as more than a footballer, though he plans to return to live in London closer to his family once his United career is over.
Ferdinand has been an exceptional performer in over 11 years at Old Trafford, good enough to be considered the club’s greatest-ever defender. His partnership with Nemanja Vidic has been peerless and almost impenetrable to rivals.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea both left United in search of more minutes, while Gerard Pique departed Old Trafford in 2008 because he found the Ferdinand-Vidic axis as indomitable as United’s opponents. He was happy to learn from the pair, but not unreasonably, he wanted to play himself and left for Barcelona.
Describing a rare appearance at Everton in his last season, Pique said: “Everton hit lots of balls into our box, but we defended superbly. Rio and Vida won almost every ball. It was defending at its very best.” That season, FourFourTwo magazine included both in their “Best 100 Players in the World”. United were also crowned champions of Europe.
“I learn from them every time I watch them play,” the Catalan said. “Just as I do every day in training. It’s the nuances, the little details which help improve my game.
“They share many similar qualities: both are tall, quick, hard players who read the game well and anticipate attacks, yet there are differences and they complement each other.
“Rio is technically better on the ball, a leader in the team who always talks. He is deceivingly strong – I see that in the gym at Carrington, but on the pitch he’ll get closer to strikers to stop them turning whereas Vida is more aggressive. He sees every game as a battle in which he must win.
“Vida is solid. You would fancy him to win any 50/50 ball. You would still fancy him if two opposing players went for the same ball as him. They are two of the best centre-backs in the world and probably the best central defensive partnership in the world, certainly a reason United don’t concede many goals.”
The Brazilian striker Nilmar claims Ferdinand is the best defender has has ever played against, but age has finally caught him up. Ferdinand started in seven of United’s first eight games of this season, where evidence of his decline began to show. He was not alone in being poor in September’s 2-1 home defeat to West Bromwich Albion, United’s third Premier League defeat in four games.
That was his last performance until the game at Cardiff City six matches later, which United also failed to win. Ferdinand has not played in any of the seven league matches since, his only appearances in Leverkusen and, ingloriously, against Shahktar, his 444th United game.
Whereas David Moyes continues to play Ryan Giggs, at 40 the only player older than Ferdinand in the side, he has settled on Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans or Phil Jones in central defence, with captain Vidic as back up for injury and in times of numerous games. Vidic performed well at Norwich City on Saturday.
Moyes prefers the energy of youth and, for all his talents, that is something Ferdinand no longer has.