When Manchester United signed Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow in 2005, Sir Alex Ferguson described him with relish as "a defender who can defend." In Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown, his first-choice pairing the previous season, Ferguson had two elegant players, center-backs who read the game, made their interceptions and distributed intelligently, but he didn't have a player who radiated a force of will, who not merely handled the physical side of the game, but relished it.
In many ways Vidic was an old-fashioned defender: he saw the ball and went for it, and was aided in that by the fact that his head seemed hewn of granite. There are countless shots of him soaring above opponents to head the ball clear, but there are also countless shots of him stopping and diving to head the ball clear, as boots fly all around. Courage was never an issue; or, rather, if it was an issue it's that he was too courageous -- it seems a frequent occurrence that he would miss games with head injuries and concussions, but it's even more remarkable that he didn't miss more. On one memorable occasion against Swansea, he was face down on the ground when he saw Chico Flores lining up a shot. He tried to hurl himself in the way, arrived a fraction ate and ended up headbutting the ground.
"He loved the challenge of sticking his head in there," Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. "You could tell that the thrill of contesting those 50-50 balls animated him... Vidic was a dour, uncompromising sod."
It was just that dourness that made him so popular among fans. There were no frills and seemingly little ego, just an implacable will to win. And that, in turn, was an inspiration to teammates. With Vidic on the pitch, there could be no compromise. Only against extreme pace was there a weakness, which was why Vidic struggled so badly against Fernando Torres in the forward's time at Liverpool, being sent off three times in a row against United's most bitter rivals.
For the most part, though, the partnership with Ferdinand worked perfectly. Languid as he is, Ferdinand was quick and, by and large, could cover Vidic's slight lack of pace, while Vidic's intensity helped keep Ferdinand's famously lax concentration in check. For a time they were the best central defensive partnership in the Premier League and perhaps the world. When goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar went a world record 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal early in 2009, the protection he was given by Ferdinand and Vidic deserved much of the credit. United won the league that season, one of the five championships Vidic won at the club along with a Champions League, three League Cups and a Club World Cup. He was also named the Premier League Player of the Season in 2008-09 and 2010-11, an indication of the respect he earned: He wasn't just hard, he was also fair. Vidic's recklessness endangers himself rather than any one else; he isn't a defender intent on leaving his mark on opponent's shins.
To an extent, time and events have overtaken him. Vidic is 32, has struggled over the past couple of seasons with a series of knee injuries and with his contract set to expire at the end of the season, it's no great surprise that both he and United should decide it's time to move on. It's fairly clear that the next year or two will be a time of major rebuilding at Old Trafford and, while an experienced old hand might be a help in that, an experienced old hand who is constantly battling his body may not be. With Ferdinand, now 35 and fairly evidently disaffected with Moyes, also probably leaving in the summer, it make sense for United to look to the future with an entirely new central defensive partnership.
"He has been a brilliant servant for Manchester United," said Moyes, who understandably wants to get the most he can out of Vidic for the remainder of the season. "He is captain and it will remain that way until the end of the season. He has been a great player for us and we will continue using him."
And who, realistically, can blame a player who has given eight years to a club, who has won 15 trophies including a Champions League, if he has no desire to see the squad he was part of broken up, if he is reluctant to play in a side scrabbling to qualify for the Champions League.
If he moves to Internazionale, as has been widely rumored, he faces a similar struggle with a fading giant. But at least there he will not constantly be comparing a better past he once knew.