You might not have realised it yet, but the world, one way or the other, has been influenced, big or small, by a number of Ferdinands. They’ve all been important in their own way. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 led to the Great War; the indie band under the same name, taken from the Austrian, assasinated music; in 1519, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan defied scurvy and became the first man to cross the Pacific; the striker Les defied brutish defenders without teeth and became the first man to score goals for six different Premier League clubs, lethal from the cross. Les’ cousin — Rio — would be recognised as one the finest defenders in modern football; most notably at Manchester United, where his years spent at the club recently struck ten.
It’s quite a feat. Landmarks don’t matter — yadda yadda — you might think, as, of course, it’s just a number. But it’s not just a number. The number represents something more. Few players manage ten years at the same club; the fact that these ten were spent at a club like Manchester United would act as convincing a tribute as any other.
The years are especially important when considering the transfer fee. £30million in 2002 was a risk with no exclusions, particularly on a man whose taste in white suits could have conceivably knocked a few rocks off in negotiation with Leeds United out of sympathy. Regardless, even with the baggage (the harsh drugs ban, the stalling of contract, have we mentioned the suit?), the investment was a good one. His finest season, 2007/08, would have been his to have if not for 42-goal Cristiano Ronaldo (Sir Alex: “Rio has been the best defender in the country if not Europe for a couple of years”); he captained a United side, the best since ’99, to a League/Euro double; and can claim to have been one half of the club’s most defensively-secure partnership. And though it’s debatable, Ferdinand can think of himself as the finest English defender in recent times, and maybe of Ferguson’s reign. In dividing the fee with years spent, £3million for Ferdinand’s services per campaign might sound like a pricey loan, but it’s good value given the output.
There are some, however, with reservations. The legendary Franco Baresi appeared excited by Ferdinand’s potential under Harry Redknapp in 2000; six years later, he stated that Ferdinand “plays as though he is looking at himself in the mirror,” a small criticism of his want to play with the ball, surprising in that this particular aspect of Ferdinand’s game is one that he has earned a lot of praise for. “Ferdinand doesn’t generate that sense of security and trust,” Baresi continued. “He is responsible for conceding too many goals.” Baresi’s opinions were not unique, though — indeed many would agree that he does, at times, look vulnerable even if, like Baresi, they recognise that Ferdinand is an accomplished player. But, would it now be wrong to suggest Baresi would retract his comments in present day? After all, he did hint that then-Arsenal Philippe Senderos was a better player, as was Jamie Carragher for his part in Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League success. Would Baresi, upon seeing Ferdinand and United conquer Europe in 2008, change his mind? Certainly, yes. That year was one of Ferdinand’s best, as touched on, but two years after the Italian’s claim. Back then, many would agree — Ferdinand still had a lot to prove and it wasn’t until the later emergence of Nemanja Vidic or the Double could he really move anywhere close to the near-untouchable level that Baresi himself managed as a professional.
Going further back — 2004, to be precise — Richard Kurt of Red Issue dismissed Ferdinand’s return from his drugs ban as being something of a heroic one, or a ‘Second Coming’ that would share a similar importance to Eric Cantona’s against Liverpool in 1995. He was not wrong; United might have been suffering in Ferdinand’s absence, but there would be no guarantee of a change inspired by the ex-Leeds United player; because, indeed, his first few years at Old Trafford were only good at best, and, as pointed out, he had to do better to show he was a £30million player. “What does he owe us?” asked the writer. It was the answer that acts as the reason for the referencing of this particular write-up, that does well in putting Ferdinand’s eventual speedy rise into context. “For starters, eight months of head-down, commitment.” While the contract fuss shortly after (where his apparent reluctance to sign a new contract upset many) contradicts any claim of ‘head-down commitment’, United have received eight years, let alone months — and counting — of fantastic service that must be appreciated all the same.
The best you could say about Ferdinand is that even with the doubts, the knocks and the setbacks, his reputation as just a footballer in spite of all that is still one for others to be envious of. It’s worth acknowledging that life in the world of defenders is lived mainly on the edge, a truly terrifying place where the disapproving have little patience and reject the healing power of time, their collective words harsh and unforgiving, and not too dissimilar to Mary Shelley’s village mob in Frankenstein. The critics watch over intently as if a physical version of Orwell’s telescreen, and wait for an error as if a slip fielder because, well, defenders are the easy target. And some struggle to forge a reputation for this very reason; redemption is difficult for a defender when another player, a forward, can find it simply with a string of goals. Good form is barely acknowledged for someone at the back because what they are tasked with doing would naturally be understated, because it is expected, meaning any mistake is then overstated. And so, it is why when you hear of a defender widely regarded as a great footballer that you could truly appreciate their talent, overcoming, arguably, the most demanding (in that you require a stupendous level of consistency) and most scrutinised position on the pitch. Rio Ferdinand, rambling now over, falls into this special category.
Goalkeepers are always said to be not far away from a costly error but the reality is that a defender commits more mistakes, especially a centre-half, and the most common crime, if not positional indisclipine, is the inability to win battles against more agile forwards, especially as pace, the attribute of the young, disappears as quickly as the possessor’s locks. If you’re not wily enough to make up for the deterioration of pace, then you’re in trouble. Ferdinand, thankfully, still holds considerable pace for a veteran — and twinned with his unique brand of footballing intelligence — it’s a sure sign, and a rare one at that, of a player that still has it.
Going further, for defensive players, perhaps more than any other position, a lot is made of longevity; how a player will cope at a particular age concerns the most anxious of football observers (because, of course, a defender no longer up for it is the last thing a team needs, positioned where they would be most vulnerable). A youngster is said to be naive when mistakes are made, or if their underperforming is not exclusive to the occasional game. A player ten or fifteen years his senior is said to be well over the hill, and on their way to Green Grove retirement community/nursing home. The fact that Ferdinand is still going, well into his thirties, and still considered a key first team player in a team where there are a number of younger alternatives is a true indication of a player that has achieved something that must be a great personal satisfaction — to go with the impressive longevity is to know that the years put in were worth it, and to know that those several appearances in the column on the right-hand-side to your name were all deserved.
Regarding his age, Sir Alex Ferguson said recently: “He has adapted really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games when we need him. How long he goes on for is all down to how he feels physically, other than that he has no issues at all.” In 2008, just months after the Double, Ferdinand gave himself a revised target, something that would constitute a different kind of success to all the accolades, the silverware. Having longevity is the ultimate goal, but perhaps the toughest to achieve, for a defender: “If I’m still playing in the first team at 34 I’ll be delighted.” All that should be said now is that Ferdinand turns 34 in November.
Earlier this week, the fantastic Tom Pattison penned a piece with a similar intention, reflecting on ten years of Rio Ferdinand (which was published during the above’s baby stages) featuring detailed, unrivalled insight on what has shaped Ferdinand as a player over the years. It feels necessary, whether or not you enjoyed this article, to direct you to that one as a direct complement to this, or, perhaps, a superior substitute. You can find it here.
It was nothing more than a simple finish, the product of an unglamorous move littered with opposition mistakes but important all the same, as all goals in cup finals are. This was Shinji Kagawa’s goal in his last game, the opener for Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final against Bayern Munich. But watching over was Sir Alex Ferguson; the importance of such an occasion emphasised by the fact that flanking the Manchester United manager was Mike Phelan, wearing trousers — the presence of these two making that most ordinary of finishes even more significant in a game that would finish 5-2 in Dortmund’s favour.
Kagawa’s move to United would soon be confirmed and his first act as a player was a bold and admirable one for those who value particular shirt numbers, rejecting the no.7 recently held by the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Owen: “I want to make a name for myself on my own terms.” Modest, yes, but those who seem to know Kagawa best are certain there is an arrogance in the way he speaks, and the way he plays. He was once very critical of now-former strike partner Robert Lewandowski, claiming that the Polish forward’s “game is purely focused on trying to score himself, rather than playing together with his teammates … that’s why I hardly get the ball from him.”
But Quazi Zulquar, writer for Bundesliga Fanatic, tells me that he believes there is nothing wrong with the Japanese player’s mentality. In fact, quite the contrary, in that it will instead help him thrive at United: “Kagawa is a motivated in the right ways, and his mentality has just the touch of arrogance you require to succeed at a big club,” Zulquar says. “He is not how you stereotypically identify Far Eastern players. He possesses that extra bit of flair and self belief that could be the defining factor from being a role player to an instrumental part of Manchester United for the forseeable future.”
His colleague at the Fanatic, Nicklas Wildhagen, agrees: “His mentality, and his skill would certainly point toward the fact that he has what it takes.” Although, Wildhagen concedes that there are “an array of different factors that could prevent this from happening”. Immediate potential problems that come to mind would be his language barrier, the time it takes to settle and being played in other positions, possibly on the wing. You could counter that, however; he appears to be willing to learn the language, he settled in quickly at Germany (Neven Subtoic: “He came to our league having mainly played in the second division in Japan, but still had an immediate impact”) and Sir Alex has enough options out wide that Kagawa, then, should conceivably play in the ‘hole’, a position he most prefers.
Both Wildhagen and Zulquar believe that United will soon see the benefits of the £17million paid for Kagawa: “£17 million is a little price to pay if you consider how good a player Kagawa actually is,” says Wildhagen. “His movement is impeccable, his understanding of the game itself is fantastic, he knows how to finish off a move, and his speed and technique make him pretty much a complete player.” And then he adds: “… bar headers that is. He’s not the tallest of fellas.” Zulquar asks, somewhat changing the mood: “Is any player worth £17million when he has a year left of his contract? No, in my opinion, and I fear that this is a stick that will be used to beat Kagawa with, if and when he takes time to settle in.” Then he says something reassuring. “But in a perfect world, I feel 17million is fair value for a 23 year old whose ceiling is so high.”
Is there a chance Kagawa’s been over-hyped by some observers? Zulquar thinks the opposite, describing him as ‘sensational’, perhaps humorously hyping the player even further. “For what it’s worth, I believe he is criminally underrated by a lot of quarters. In other words, people who don’t really follow the Bundesliga closely. He is fleet footed, has good turn of pace, a low centre of gravity, very high footballing IQ and a good shot with both feet.”
A stand-out memory? “I remember very fondly the first time I watched Kagawa — and United fans will like this,” Zulquar starts. “It was a pre-season friendly in 2010 and Dortmund were playing Manchester City. Kagawa scored in that game after daintily traipsing his way through the City defence and then he also won a penalty with a sudden burst of pace that caught Gareth Barry napping. His overall play impressed me greatly and it was a case of discovering a hitherto unknown quantity. I knew then he would be a star. And he hasn’t disappointed.”
Wildhagen remembers the “two goals he scored against Schalke in his first Ruhr valley derby [in the 2010/11 season, where Dortmund won 1-3]. He actually told the press before the match that he wanted to score two goals. His excellent performance meant that Schalke were humiliated by their loathed arch rivals in front of their own fans. This is one of my favourite Bundesliga memories from the last couple of seasons, and actually one of the main reasons why Kagawa quickly became a fan favourite.” Wildhagen also tells me that despite missing about half of that season, his first, through injury, he was still a part of the Bundesliga’s Best XI.
As for how Kagawa will fit into Manchester United, a third Fanatic writer/editor, Cristian Nyari, says that there is “no doubt that from a skill point he is very much a ‘United-type’ player.” Kagawa’s presence could help Wayne Rooney; while Rooney had his best season goalscoring-wise, he spent a lot of the second half of the season looking forlorn, and uninspired. He wasn’t necessarily starved of the ball, but appeared to be caught in two minds; almost holding two separate roles as playmaker and chief goal-getter. One worked at the expense of the other. With Kagawa, Rooney’s workload could be said to have halved and that while it did seem for a while that Rooney would prosper closer to the midfield, the last campaign instead showed that he is perhaps better off up the field. Rooney admitted at one point last season that he wasn’t happy with the level of some of his performances (read more here).
“The question for me is how Rooney will be accommodated with Kagawa’s addition because Kagawa is best in a 4-2-3-1 in the hole,” Nyari says. “Will Sir Alex Ferguson keep Rooney and Welbeck up top and if so where will Kagawa fit in? Not that he can’t track back or defend, he has done a lot of that in the Bundesliga, but he is best playing closer to goal. As good as Kagawa is, the 4-4-2 is not an ideal formation for him so Ferguson might have to tweak his formation to suit him which, of course, raises many other questions.
“The quickness with which he adapted to the Bundesliga and Dortmund was astonishing but that was partly the result of [manager] Jurgen Klopp already having the ideal set up for him to just slot into. He had a ball winner and runners playing behind him, a mobile technical striker in front of him and always the right runs from his wide players.” Kagawa arguably has all this at Manchester United. Of course, if he is utilised correctly, United will have a player capable of giving them another dimension in attack, a terrifying talent that could lend fear to a team who badly need a restoration of image to make up for recent shortcomings; those that have watched him play often certainly believe so. Just take their word for it.
The universe demands that every young player serious about a successful career with the big boys have their moment first; the one tabloid writers can reference as the time they burst onto the scene, almost in ignorance to the wider picture, forgetting that they are where they are not solely because of this moment, but because of the hard work that preceded it.
Wayne Rooney’s goal against Arsenal as an Everton player in 2002 is a particularly good example, a newspaper-friendly story of a young unknown, crucially an Englishman, daring to have a go and beating David Seaman. The strike saw the goalkeeper react hesitantly in a manner not too dissimilar to the one off Ronaldinho’s boot one afternoon in Shizuoka just months earlier, which some were inclined to add into their match reports. Nick Powell, Manchester United’s £4million signing, had one of these moments, like Rooney, not long ago: perhaps less hyped, yes, but certainly more important.
It was only in May 2012: 15 minutes had passed in the glamorous League Two play-off final against Cheltenham Town, and Powell did this. He had helped Crewe Alexandra to a 2-0 win. By then, we had heard of United’s interest — and although some knew better than to explode into excitement, it was — importantly — a moment, a goal, not isolated into just one level of football. The control, the finish, the impressive use of both feet. Even in not trying to fall into the trap of being mislead by a video clip, especially for a player as inexperienced as Powell, you could at least tell that United had done their research.
But apart from that goal, and what Wikipedia tells us, what else do we really know about Powell? In fact, for a player most likely to start his new career for the reserves, is there really a need for all this? The talk, the profiling, this piece even; indeed, years ago, a signing in the context of a player having only played in the fourth tier, would generate less everything — that we know, for obvious reasons. But nor is this a transfer on the scale of Shinji Kagawa just before it, an established attacking player some argue was most influential in Borussia Dortmund’s 2011/12 title win. Powell, you’d logically think, will not play as many senior games as Kagawa, someone likely to be thrown right in, will this coming season. That we also know.
Still: this is football now and we have to accept it. Accept that there is a lot more forensic interest these days and accept that opinions have to be formed to preserve world order. This was big-ish news; no longer on the scale of something that would be consigned to page 13/14 of Manchester United’s section on Teletext. And maybe rightly so; if he’s so talented as they say, then we carelessly take their word and be optimistic. After all, when we highlight the examples of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton, League One to Arsenal) and more so Chris Smalling (non-league Maidstone United to Fulham then Manchester United), we can see for ourselves players who have made the transition, settling in at big clubs with the abundant time available at their tender age.
But, anyway, what do we actually know? Well …
Of course, being a full-time follower of a Premier League club invariably means you’ll be dismissed as, they would say, someone quite ignorant to the lower leagues and those people are, well, right. Most of us are part of a miserable, know-nothing bunch. So, Jon Birchall, an unusually non-ignorant man partial to Crewe Alexandra and arranger of words on the internet, was asked to write a paragraph on Powell, giving us an insight into the player he apparently knows all about (with the greatest respect, anything he tells us — whether that he is 6ft tall or takes a keen interest in palmistry — will be considered and then believed all the same). He agreed and, as you can see below, he was able to pen a paragraph or five:
Clenched within the considerable wingspan of David Gill, Nick Powell held a pose of quiet formidability as United announced his signing. Pursed lips, dead eyes and an overwhelming sense of self. He looked ready.
You can tell a lot from such pictures. On the day he joined United, Dimitar Berbatov had one too many buttons undone with his hair greased back, an arm around Sir Alex Ferguson like a mafioso shepherding him to the private area of a Sofia strip club. Chicharito smiled with boundless, childlike enthusiasm. Bebe looked confused.
But Powell held himself in high regard, and so have I and everyone else that follows Crewe since he first started playing regularly for The Alex 18 months ago. The truth is, he really is that good. Coupled with a more pragmatic approach to League Two football, Powell carried a side that could quite easily have become relegation fodder to the playoff final against Cheltenham … and you know what happened there.
As for what happens next is tricky. A character-building loan in the Football League is frankly unnecessary. He’s had his fair share of elbows from fat League Two defenders that simply didn’t know what to do with him. As such, a spell with the Reserves seems like the most obvious option. Powell needs to play with good footballers that are going to challenge him, speed him up and have him pushing for the first team. I genuinely see no reason why it can’t happen within a season or so, and I’d imagine he feels the same way.
After all, for every pair of sensible Denis Irwin jeans, you occasionally need the leather-trousered bravado of a Cristiano Ronaldo. Fran Lebowitz was right; humility is no substitute for a good personality. The youngster will learn the former among more talented players at United but the latter is already there in abundance. Powell knows just how brilliant he is, and soon, so will everyone else.
Jon Birchall is the Deputy Editor of Goal.com UK