Veni Vidi Vidic: United's red rock reveals the art of invincibility

Nemanja Vidic is the tough guy in Manchester United’s stonewall defence, just the sort of player Rafael Benitez would have liked to sign. Sam Wallace meets him
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Nemanja Vidic is describing how he feels when an opposing striker scores. “To be honest, as a defender watching someone celebrate, it’s a bad thing. It’s horrible. Always before the game I put this in my mind, ‘Hey, I don’t want anyone to score today because it’s going to make me feel bad’. This is my job. First of all I need to be a defender. That’s the way I look at football. It’s how I look at myself.”

The portcullis of Manchester United’s defence. The hardman from Serbia. The only United defender to have featured in every one of the 1,302 minutes the team have gone without conceding a Premier League goal in their last 14 games. As he talks me through this personal philosophy his eyes shine, his expression hardens and the intensity is evident. It is a glimpse into the tenacity that has made Vidic one of the best defenders in the world.

From watching Vidic the player you might expect the man himself to have the brooding demeanour of an off-duty assassin. However, the man who presents himself for interview in the foyer of United’s Carrington training ground on Thursday, the day after United have swept aside Fulham, is friendly and open. Vidic is less thickset than he looks from the stand. He is lean and rangy, bounding up the stairs two at a time. Later, when we talk about the prospect of him being voted player of the year there is even the hint of an embarrassed blush.

Vidic, 27, is the Premier League’s man of the moment, voted player of the month for January there is every chance that greater personal accolades will come this season. This evening against Blackburn Rovers he will again be the keystone in a United defence aiming for its 15th consecutive clean sheet. It has been so long now that when he searches for the date of Samir Nasri’s two goals for Arsenal – the last time United conceded in the league – it takes a few seconds before he remembers: 8 November. The run is already a record in British football, today United could equal the European record set by Club Brugge in 1990.

“I didn’t think about the record at all,” Vidic says. “It was only when it got to nine or 10 games and it was in the papers. I thought, ‘Oh, it has been that long since we conceded a goal?’ It’s good to keep your focus for the next game. It’s just the way we do it. Nothing has changed about our game from the first one to the one when people started to talk about it. In November we lost two goals against Arsenal and that didn’t look good and everyone was disappointed.

Does it get easier or harder? “It’s hard to say. I’m never going to say I don’t want another clean sheet. But first of all: win the game. That’s what it is all about. We defend as a team. Attack and defend. We keep possession. It’s the way you have to be if you want to win trophies.”

The red card he picked up in the Club World Cup final in December means that Vidic will not play in the Champions League against Internazionale on Tuesday. The United defence, however, has changed many times over the 14-game run, in fact John O’Shea has played more minutes (961) during the run than Rio Ferdinand (742). In all seven players have featured in United’s back four over that period, a remarkable record, although – Edwin van der Sar aside – it is Vidic’s partnership with Ferdinand that gets the most scrutiny.

“Yes maybe we [Vidic and Ferdinand] are different characters. I don’t know how you would make that distinction. But we are all different characters, right? If you look at us in a match we are prepared to help each other out if we are in a bad position. Outside the pitch our relationship is good. We have the same attitude, we want to improve, we know we have to depend on each other. It just works. You can’t say I want to be better, it has to be worked on.”

The distinction is probably the toughness. Vidic just looks hard. The square-ish head, the flat nose. It is why the United fans sing “He comes from Serbia/He’ll fucking murder yer”. He is a modern centre-back: comfortable on the ball and useful when it comes to scoring goals too (he has scored three times during the 14-game run including the last-minute winner against Sunderland). But there is something appealingly old-fashioned about Vidic which is why they love him at Old Trafford.

“I don’t act tough because I want to be tough,” he says. “It just depends on the situation. The last few years I have had a number of injuries. I have put my head where maybe I don’t need to put it. It’s just me trying to stop a goal. Sometimes you can’t go strong because the guy you are playing against is stronger than you. Sometimes you have to be more clever to take the ball. You cannot win 100 balls out of 100. It is about finding a way to win it.”

Where does the courage come from? “I think you are born with that. My personality is like that. I don’t like to give up. I like to fight for everything. Not to fight in a bad way but to go hard to chase something. That is how I am in training and in games.”

Vidic’s story starts in the western Serbia town of Užice, formerly Titovo Užice. He laughs when I get my dates wrong and suggest that President Tito was still around when he was child, Tito died the year before Vidic’s birth. Vidic played for his local team but at 15 he was signed as a junior by Red Star Belgrade where he began his professional career. Three years later Užice was bombed by Nato planes in the offensive against Serbian forces in Kosovo. The worst of it was in May 1999 when less than 1,000 miles to the west in Barcelona, United were winning the Champions League final.

“It was a very bad time for our country and for us people as well,” Vidic says. “Everything stopped in the country, you could not do anything. People stopped working. As a boy [in Belgrade] I couldn’t play football for three or four months. You just couldn’t train because of the planes. It was a bad time, many people died. I don’t really know what to say. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

He says that Red Star was where he learned about the mentality of playing for a big club. They had been the team he supported growing up in Užice, a Yugoslavian Manchester United. It was Red Star whom the Busby Babes side played in 1958 in the European Cup, the journey home went via Munich where the crash that claimed eight members of the team took place. Vidic grew up watching one of the best Red Star teams, that of the early 1990s.

“I left Užice when I was 15 and moved to Belgrade to live and play football for the club. That was the generation of 91 [when they won the European Cup]. [Dejan] Savicevic, [Robert] Prosinecki, [Darko] Pancev, [Vladimir] Jugovic. They had a great team at that time. They were my idols. At Red Star it was like here. Every game we played we had to win. You never think about drawing. It’s the same here, you watch the United youth team and they want to win.”

From Red Star, Vidic joined Spartak Moscow in 2004 and United in January 2006. Rafael Benitez regularly cites Vidic as an example of the kind of player Liverpool would not miss out on if he was given the kind of jurisdiction over transfer dealings that he craves. Had Liverpool moved quicker, according to Benitez, Vidic would now be a favourite of the Kop rather than the Stretford End.

“I was talking with Liverpool,” Vidic says. “I was very close to Fiorentina, then Liverpool and after that Manchester United. Definitely I made the right choice. At that time it was a hard choice but when you look at it now with the three years we have won many trophies, I play regularly. It’s a great team. When you have the players around you who are so professional it’s the right environment.

“Liverpool started the meetings, then they stopped. If it was about money I could have got more somewhere else. When I left Russia I just wanted to develop professionally. If I had stayed at Spartak Moscow I would have had more money than at United because they offered me more money to stay. Professionally, to go to Europe, United was the best choice.” So what about finishing the season as the player of the year? “I am happy that I am to be in the competition. I’m very glad. I don’t know what to say, you tell me that defenders never win?” I explain that there have only been three in the history of the PFA player of the year award – Colin Todd, Paul McGrath and John Terry. Terry’s is the only name Vidic recognises. You know that if you win the Football Writers’ Association award you have to make a speech? “I can prepare myself for that!” he says.

“We will see. Of course I would like to be player of the year. Who wouldn’t? I work hard, I want to improve I want to be better in every game. If you win something like this you obviously know that you are going the right way. I think that is why people are talking about the award because we have so many clean sheets. I am one of the players who picks up the credit for that. But – what can I say? – we haven’t kept all these clean sheets because of one player. It’s about the whole team because you don’t just defend with five players and score with two.” Win this evening against Blackburn and United will be eight points ahead of Liverpool by the time the club in second place play Manchester City at Anfield tomorrow. At Old Trafford against Fulham on Wednesday night it felt that this title race was over, that it had become a procession for United. Has it?

“We are in a good position, we are five points in front of Liverpool. We have many games to play, we have to play Liverpool at home [14 March]. We need to keep going, keep doing what we have done until now and everything is in our hands. We don’t need to think about Liverpool because we don’t depend on them, we depend on ourselves. We won three trophies last year. This year we are in four competitions.”

Can United really win all four? “It’s hard. Definitely hard. We are in a good way, a good position. Like I said we just need to do what we did game by game. If you think where you are going to be in June you lose your focus. We must keep our focus.”

There is a philosophy about United’s defence that Vidic returns to again and again. “All players who come in, they know what their jobs are,” he says. “They know exactly what they need to do and we depend on these guys.” This is what makes the machine work, the United defence that will line up again at Old Trafford with the firm intention of stopping Blackburn in their tracks. With one unyielding man at the centre of it.

So how do you score against Man United?

Nigel Clough is the man who ought to know. His Derby County side have scored four of the five goals United have conceded this year, but he says he is not actually sure why. “Try to be positive,” was his reply when asked his secret last weekend.

No one has suggested a definitive method of beating United’s defence this season, although Mark Hughes, while he was the Blackburn Rovers manager, offered the most precise suggestion of the past 12 months when he said last April that positioning an imposing striker – Roque Santa Cruz in his case – at right midfield to take out the 5ft 8in Patrice Evra might work. “We wanted to isolate Patrice Evra, whose ability in the air doesn’t match his ability on the ground,’’ explained Hughes, who confirmed himself as a manager Sir Alex Ferguson struggles to beat after the Paraguayan battered Evra all afternoon – outjumping and outmuscling United’s left-back, confusing him as Cruz pushed inside, then scoring. It took an 88th-minute Carlos Tevez equaliser to save United at a critical juncture in the title push.

Michael Essien provided evidence that the flanks might be the area to attack, rather then test Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, the centre-backs who have two holding midfielders in front of them, when he exposed Cristiano Ronaldo’s disinclination to track back in last season’s Champions League final, while Pat Nevin, the pundit, is another who considers those channels to represent United’s defensive weakness, if there is one. “If you are going to attack Manchester United, that is where you would want to try and attack them,” was Nevin’s diagnosis, albeit one that predated the current 14-match run without conceding in the league. Jose Mourinho also articulated the benefits of counter-attack against United after Chelsea’s success in the 2007 FA Cup final, suggesting that Ferdinand can be drawn out of position.

Mourinho always said that scoring against United, who have conceded 10 league goals this campaign, started with first killing their space and unsettling them. “First of all [allow them] no counter-attack; secondly, a minimum of six players behind the ball-line so when you lose the ball there you have those six players there. Thirdly, when you can, you do double marking on the wingers.”

The two sides who have scored three against United this season – Hull City and Paul Ince’s Blackburn – offer another ploy: go 4-1 down and lull the champions into complacency. But the experience of Liverpool and Arsenal, who have both put two past Edwin van der Sar – albeit one of Liverpool’s goals was a Wes Brown own goal – suggests that attacking United hard from the start is the best strategy. In other words: “Try to be positive.” Just as Nigel Clough told it.

Ian Herbert

My other life

“I love good food. Any kind of food, just as long as it is good quality: Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Chinese. Where I live in Cheshire there are good restaurants. I don’t have a passion to cook but [with irony] I would like my wife to cook very well. Maybe I should get her lessons? I like playing darts and snooker.”