Silvestre solves the central problem

Desperate measure proves inspired move for transformed United
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The Independent Football

As a racehorse owner, Sir Alex Ferguson knows all about taking the odd punt. And yet the Scot has always said that the secret of Man-chester United's success over the course of his 16-year tenure has been hard work.

As a racehorse owner, Sir Alex Ferguson knows all about taking the odd punt. And yet the Scot has always said that the secret of Man-chester United's success over the course of his 16-year tenure has been hard work.

Even the club's most improbable victory, in the dying seconds of the 1999 Champions' League final against Bayern Munich to complete the Treble, was credited to the players' unshakeable self-belief rather than simple good fortune. Luck, we were told, had never been a factor. Until now.

The popular version of history will suggest that Sir Alex's virulent attack on his players after their abject defeat in the Manchester derby six weeks ago was the turning point of this season, but the truth is far less exciting. In fact, the catalyst for United's complete turn-around in not only fortune but also quality of performances was a desperate tactical switch in Switzerland.

The Champions' League match against Basle was a mere 20 minutes old when Ferguson, with his team already 1-0 down and looking more vulnerable than ever, decided to swap his left-back, Mikaël Silvestre, with one of his central defenders, John O'Shea. United went on to win 3-1 and the rest, as Silvestre himself might say, is histoire.

To some, Ferguson's sudden rearranging of his rearguard was an admission of failure; to others, it was an inspired move; to Silvestre, it was "just one of those spur-of-the-moment things that work". Luck may have played a part in his move from full-back to centre-back, but since then Silvestre's performances have been all but flawless.

In the seven matches before the Frenchman assumed his new role alongside Wes Brown, United had conceded 11 goals. Since then, the Reds' back-line have let in just two goals in seven outings. Better yet, they have not been breached more than once in 90 minutes and have kept five consecutive clean sheets. Not the worst preparation to face two former United favourites, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, at Ewood Park today.

There have been numerous changes in defence – of the four who were seen as first choices at the start of the season only Gary Neville is still in his usual place at right-back – but the single most important reason for this transformation is Silvestre. According to the man who groomed him at the Rennes Academy, what Silvestre lacks in height he more than makes up for in pace. "Even as a young lad," Patrick Rampillon explains, "Mikaël was always super- fast. And at this level, that makes all the difference in the centre. Look at the match against Liverpool when [Michael] Owen was kept quiet. Suddenly attackers don't sit on the shoulder of the last United defender [usually Laurent Blanc] waiting for the chance to spin around and get to a long ball. Mikaël scares opponents."

Not that Silvestre is all speed of foot. "More than anything else," Rampillon says, "Mikaël is a very intelligent footballer. That's important, because defending is not just about individual duels, it's also about cleverness and good positional sense. Look at Blanc: he's never been the quickest, but he has always anticipated brilliantly. Mikaël is even better, because he can run and think."

In fact, we should notbe too surprised by Silvestre's ability to play at centre-back. It is, after all, the role he has always coveted. "I like playing in the centre of defence," he says, "because you have more control over the game there, more influence. The side stems from the centre-backs, and I like that extra responsibility."

So it is actually to Silvestre's credit that he accepted Ferguson's decision to play him at left-back for more than two years with such equanimity. Cynics will suggest that his decision to sign a new four-year contract earlier this week was a direct consequence of his move inside, but that is not the Frenchman's style.

"Looking for another club and weighing up other possible moves after January was never in my thoughts," he says, having committed himself until 2007. "The only reason negotiations have gone on a bit is that you can't get it all sorted in one appointment. But I am really pleased because I'm proud to be a member of this team."

Silvestre, who has made 163 appearances for the Reds since joining them from Inter-nazionale in September 1999, admits that the ongoing negotiations did worry him "a bit at night", although you would not have known judging by his performances. "When you enter the final year of your contract you do get little worries about whether the club will offer you a new deal," says the 25-year-old. "I was a bit preoccupied by it. But I decided I had to forget it and focus on my football."

In truth, it was always Silvestre's intention to stay at the club, and he has made it clear that he would revert to left-back if asked to. But he will be going nowhere. At 37, Blanc's time as a first-choice centre-back is finally over. Rio Ferdinand, will have to be re-accommodated, but probably at the expense of the less experienced and right-footed Wes Brown. Silvestre is surely there to stay. Even the normally immovable Ferguson has had to admit as much. "When you have a naturally left-sided player, the tendency is to play him as a left-back," he said of the Frenchman. "But Mikaël has always looked upon himself as a centre-half and now I agree with him."

Eventually, the combination of Ferdinand and Silvestre in the heart of the defence should give United the pace and solidity needed to rebuild another dominant team.

"I knew Rio would be a good signing," Silvestre said of the £30m defender, who is almost fit again following a thigh injury, "because he's played at the top level. I'd love to play alongside him." A few weeks ago that would have been improbable, but Lady Luck has since intervened.