Rio Under Pressure?

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By Tom Bowles.

Three main talking points arose from Manchester United’s victory at West Brom: the contrasting fortunes of David De Gea and Ashley Young, the new hairstyle sported by Wayne Rooney and the injuries sustained in defence.

Plenty has been said about the former two, but it is actually the latter that is most intriguing, particularly in regards to Rio Ferdinand, who has endured a difficult start to the season. Joleon Lescott escaped Ferdinand’s attention for City’s first goal in the Community Shield before pulling his hamstring in the opening Premier League game, thus ruling him out for six weeks.

Ferdinand turns 33 in November and has been playing first-team football since the age of 17, so that he has become susceptible to muscle strains is to be expected. Yet it is significant that his latest injury is not a product of fatigue or lack of fitness. Rather, it comes following six weeks rest and a full pre-season.

The occurrence may just be bad luck, but in reality he has only played in roughly half of United’s fixtures since December 2008 due to troubles with his back, knee, calf and hamstring respectively.

It is a testament to his ability, reading of the game and experience that Ferdinand has largely maintained his form, despite appearing so intermittently. His performance at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of last season’s Champions League quarter-final was a defensive master class, made even more impressive considering he was returning from a two month injury lay-off. This level of performance cannot be sustained indefinitely, though. And for the first time since becoming the world’s most expensive defender in 2002, his place in the centre of Man United’s defence is under genuine threat.

Phil Jones, the £16.5 million arrival from Blackburn Rovers, is likely to be his biggest challenger. It is never easy for defenders to be thrust into matches from the substitutes’ bench, which is why Jones’ 15 minutes at the Hawthorns was so impressive. In awkward circumstances, he made one outstanding sliding challenge and asserted an authority that belied his 19 years.

Chris Smalling too has started the season in fine style, although his versatility may be his undoing, for the time being at least. So seamlessly has he slotted into the right-back position, it would be of little surprise if he continues there, particularly in light of Rafael’s ten-week absence.

The re-emergence of Jonny Evans should not be disregarded, either, even if his style of defending means he is more of a natural replacement for Nemanja Vidic. Evans’ experience exceeds both that of both Jones and Smalling and his steady performances against City and West Brom suggest he has learned from his mistakes in the previous campaign. Ferdinand should not be written off, but his latest injury could not have come at a worse time. It is simple, really. Him remaining fit is only going to become more difficult, while Jones, Smalling and Evans are continually improving.

And while Ferdinand is too fierce a competitor to simply surrender his first-team place, should one of the aforementioned centre-halves excel in his absence, against Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea, say, he may ultimately be powerless to prevent it.

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