Sir Alex Ferguson has to deal with elimination from the Champions' League during the Group stages for only the second time in a decade. He will chase his thirteenth Premier League title and first Europa League wins without his best defender, after it was confirmed today that centre-half Nemanja Vidic will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament.
First up for the Manchester United manager is to decide on a new first-choice pair of central defenders. In channelling former mind-games patsy Rafael Benitez, he has experimented with rotating his players and the club has featured several partnerships already this season. After the Red Devils' 6-1 tonking at the hands of arch-rivals Manchester City - and injury to the elegant Chris Smalling - Ferguson elected to return to defensive basics by frequently deploying Vidic and Ferdinand.
Eighteen months ago, this coupling was probably the world's best. Wile still effective this season they have hardly been the domineering force of years past this season: Ferdinand has obviously slowed and now Vidic will be out for the foreseeable future. With Smalling and Phil Jones playing well this season, Ferdinand attracting transfer interest - most notably from the Chicago Fire and Spurs - and now Vidic, the future beckons for a callow Red Devil defence.
There are four available central defenders from Ferguson to choose a first-choice pair from.: Ferdinand, Jones, Smalling and Ferguson project/bugbear Jonny Evans. One this is for certain: barring indiscipline, the youthful trio will likely feature in some capacity in each of United's remaining games due to Ferdinand's china-plate legs and back. The possible combinations are as follows:
Ferdinand and Smalling:
Features the assured ball-player in Ferdinand and the man Ferguson recruited to succeed him. The manager seems to think either Vidic or Ferdinand is needed in the lineup to compete against the best offences in Europe and indeed, the Premiership, while Smalling seems to be more comfortable as a designated defender than Jones. This partnership has a lot to offer, and could be the one deployed for games against "big" opposition.
Ferdinand and Jones:
Jones has been used in many capacities already in his first season at Old Trafford: on the right, as a defensive midfielder, at right back, as a barnstorming box-to-box midfielder and finally as a roaming centre-back. Given his newfound (since the City loss) conservatism, it's likely Ferguson covets this versatility and won't want to tie him down to one particular role. Jones could be the only Englishman capable of playing as the libero role, but it's unlikely he'll receive the freedom to do so with United's current staid mindset.
Ferdinand and Evans:
Good grief, no. It's not that either are ad players - in my opinion, Evans is moderately underrated - but both lack legspeed and appear increasingly prone to defensive errors.
Evans and Smalling:
Perhaps more likely than one would first think. Evans has a certain combative nature perhaps lacking in the which the more reserved Smalling. He's also more positionally aware in the defensive game than Jones, however doesn't bring the distribution - or engine - of his younger compatriots. His propensity for dismissal is his greatest technical hole. If SAF prefers to pair a np-frills defender with a distributor rather than two more defensive backs, this may be his best bet.
Evans and Jones:
Given a certain stickiness of foot from Evans and Jones' natural offensive game, this partnership is perhaps one of the least likely possible combinations. This partnership would require Ferguson to open the floodgates, which, considering the disabled list currently features playmakers Cleverley, Anderson, Berbatov and Chicharito, is hardly likely.
Smalling and Jones:
Eight weeks ago this was the centre-back combination of the future. Now, even after Smalling's injury and Ferguson using Jones everywhere between Rooney and De Gea, this still reeks of potential. What is less certain, though, is if that potential will be realised as a centre-half combination. It would require empowerment from the gaffer akin to saying "Boys, you're my club's future, do what you do best". Ferguson has a history of doing this - c.f. You can't win anything with kids - but it's usually more calculated and occurs at the season's start.
While each combination has positives and negatives, it behoves Ferguson to employ his two prized young defenders at the positions they were bought to play. For United to progress - not this season, but next and beyond - Smalling and Jones must be given the chance to step up