It is often said – ‘Strikers win games, Defenders win championships’. The phrase cannot be closer to the truth for Manchester United and Sir Alex. The unrelenting Scot has built a number of great championship winning sides over the past 25 years during his tenure at Old Trafford. He has used different styles, different systems but one thing has been common in all those teams – the focus to build the team on the pillars of miserly and impermeable defense.
With all the swashbuckling and attacking brand of football associated with United over the years, it’s the defenders for whom Sir Alex has never been shy of bringing his checkbook out. Here is a look back at some of the finest defenders to have played for United in the Premier League.
Steve Bruce: The Englishman came to United from Norwich City for a sum of 800,000 pounds in December 1987. At 27 that time, Bruce was one of the best defenders around and in his prime. But that was not the only quality that attracted Sir Alex towards him. His ability to work hard, his determination to succeed and most importantly, his leadership skills left the manager in awe. His influence at the club was also overwhelming, as the team, which was already evolving under Sir Alex, had a new man to look up to and this improved the spirit of the squad as a whole.
After missing the title agonizingly in 1992, United were more determined than ever to win the inaugural season of the Premier League. With Robson well past his prime, the manager gave the captain’s armband to Bruce and he proved to be the most natural successor to Captain Marvel who was at the helm for almost 10 years. Bruce led from the front and along with Pallister kept 17 clean sheets for the team as they won their first title in 26 years. He also got his fair share of goals but none more important than his brace against Sheffield Wednesday, the second of which came six minutes deep into injury time to win the game for his team. After winning the title, Bruce took Robson along with him to take the trophy – a gesture that said a lot about his personality and his character.
Before moving to Birmingham City in 1997, Bruce won a further three league titles and two FA cups – both of which were part of league and cup doubles. Apart from the honors, Bruce would always be remembered for his professionalism and his leadership which helped in transforming the club to what it is today. His heart on the sleeve attitude has characterized the club as the players, especially center backs that have played at the club since his departure, look upon Bruce as an example. He would always remain to be a man to emulate both on and off the field.
Gary Pallister: After a frustrating 18 months for Sir Alex, which forced him to field four different center backs alongside Bruce, the manager broke the bank and signed Pallister for a fee of 2.3 million pounds from Middlesbrough. The fee was a national record for a defender at that time and second only to the sum paid by Liverpool to Juventus to bring back Ian Rush. Probably burdened by the transfer fee, Pallister had a tough start to his United career but soon started to show his class and put in solid performances alongside Bruce.
As games went by, Pallister started showing his real class and attributes as a center back. He had great aerial ability and dominating presence that posed great problems for the opponents’ strikers. His deceptive pace was also crucial for the team as it complimented the slightly slower Bruce very well. His ball control was also excellent for a tall defender as it was a quality rarely seen in those times.
Pallister formed the backbone of United’s defense for nine years and proved he was worth every penny that was spent by Sir Alex to acquire his services for the club. During those nine years, Pally failed to win a major trophy in just two seasons, which epitomizes the importance of his presence during the United renaissance in the 90’s. But the highest individual plaudit that came his way was in 1992 when he earned recognition from his fellow footballers as he was named PFA’s player of the year.
The partnership of Pallister and Bruce is still regarded as one of the best ever for United – arguably better than the current Ferdinand-Vidic alliance. Their communication and telepathic understanding earned them a legendary status in the United folklore and a nickname of Dolly and Daisy as they played virtually every game at the heart of United’s defense during the six-year period for which they were together at the club.
Britain’s most expensive defender at one point, Pallister proved to be a bargain and it wasn’t just a coincidence that Gary Pallister’s arrival at Manchester United coincided with the club’s most successful period ever. Gary’s name has forever been etched amongst the greatest of this fabled club as one of the pioneers of United’s golden era.
Jaap Stam: After losing both Bruce and Pallister in a couple of years and having failed to win anything in 1997-98 season, Sir Alex once again splashed the cash as he bought Jaap Stam for 10.2 million pounds (another record fee for a defender) from PSV at the beginning of the 98-99 season. This proved to be yet another masterstroke by the manager as United went on to win an unprecedented treble in Stam’s very first season.
Stam never had the luxury of a great partner alongside him like in the case of Bruce-Pallister and Rio-Vidic but he was the lone rock for Sir Alex – standing tall, intimidating the opposition like none before or since. Stam was strong and powerful with only a few players in the world who could match his immense physical strength. He was a brilliant ball-winner as when he went-in, he won the ball nine times out of ten. The great John Cryuff even went on record to describe Stam as “One Man Defence”.
One Man Defence
Stam won the league in all the three years of his stay at Old Trafford, which symbolized his importance to the club. However, his exit came as a shock to the United faithful as he was sold to Lazio a week after the release of his controversial autobiography in which he criticized his team mates and also accused the manager of tapping him up at PSV. Sir Alex has admitted his regret in selling only one player during his reign at Old Trafford and that player is Jaap Stam.
Rio Ferdinand: United were once again in a defensive crisis of sorts as they conceded loads of goals in the 2001-02 season, which started with the controversial offloading of Jaap Stam to Lazio. Sir Alex was out in the market for a quality center back and identified Rio Ferdinand as his target after the Englishman’s great performance at the 2002 World Cup. But getting him was not easy as Sir Alex had to break the English transfer record to sign Ferdinand from fierce rivals Leeds United for a reported fee of 29.1 million pounds.
The signing of Rio Ferdinand meant that United’s defensive problems got a ready-made solution. Ferdinand was brilliant in his first season as United conceded the least number of goals in the league on their way to yet another title. Without a consistent partner alongside him the whole season, Ferdinand showed great leadership and organizational skills that helped United become a strong defensive unit again.
Not the intimidating kind, Ferdinand is a calm and composed defender with great positional sense that prevents him from having to make last-ditch tackles. With the “dark arts” of defending practiced these days by defenders, Ferdinand is a throwback to the days of Moore and Baresi as he rarely commits a foul on the pitch, let alone atrocious tackles. His ball control is as good as any outfield player, which provides an added advantage to the team since United build several attacks starting from Ferdinand at the back.
Ferdy is a great team man off the field and the joker in him helps to liven up the dressing room. Having said that, Rio is one of the leaders in the dressing room that Sir Alex relies upon to shepherd the next crop of young defenders coming through for United. His vast experience would serve as a boon in guiding the likes of Evans and Smalling through their ups and eventual downs of their careers. Ferdinand is seen it all and done it all for club and country. He is a proud 3 Lion and even a prouder red.
Nemanja Vidic: With United struggling to find an ally for Ferdinand, Sir Alex used the winter transfer window of 2006 to sign a little known Serbian – Nemanja Vidic. Nobody at that time knew that the reported 7 million fee paid to Spartak Moscow would prove to be one of the biggest bargains of the new millennium and Vidic would be termed as one of the best buys for Sir Alex Ferguson.
With a stuttering start to his United career, Vidic was written off by one and all on the basis of his limited performances at the end of 2005-06 season. However, in the new season, Vidic silenced all his critics with breathtaking performances at the back for United. His bravery left everybody in awe including Sir Alex who went on to compare Vidic to United legend Steve Bruce.
Vida never backed off from a challenge and was always first to get his head to the ball. Like Bruce, he also got crucial goals for his team on the way to his first league medal for United who themselves won the title after a gap of three years during which they had defensive problems aplenty. Those problems were solved as Vidic earned a place in the PFA team of the year, which had all four defenders from Manchester United.
Since then, the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership has grown in stature and has been crucial in securing trophies for United. The calmness of Ferdinand and the grit and determination of Vidic has made them one of the most feared partnerships in the league. With the increasing amount of injuries to Ferdinand, Vidic’s role has been even more crucial for the team as he is barely rested by his manager but he passes all the tests with flying colors.
With Neville’s time drawing to a close before last season, Sir Alex gave the captain’s armband to Vidic and he has not disappointed the manager and the fans one bit. His ability to lead from the front is visible on the pitch, as the fact that he is one of the first names on the manager’s team sheet has earned him respect from everyone involved at the club. Vidic is in a league of his own when it comes to defending high balls in the penalty box and when the strikers look at him they could surely see one thing and only one thing in his eyes – ‘Thou Shall Not Score’.
These gentlemen have time and again done their bit and even more. They have shed sweat, tears and blood for United’s cause. They have suffered bruises, got wrestled but dusted themselves up and fought back. United’s next crop would have to emulate these brave soldiers and if they do, one thing is for sure – The Defensive Wall at Manchester United is in safe hands.