32 players to watch, February 2010

Player To Watch #20: Nemanja Vidi?

Number 20: Nemanja Vidi?

Country: Serbia

Position: Center Back

Club Team: Manchester United

American-Based Professional Sport “Soulmate”: Zdeno Chára, D, Boston Bruins

Nemanja Vidi? is on the short list of players who legitimately belong in the best defender in the world conversation. Spain’s Carles Puyol and England’s John Terry (insert jab about Terry being a jackleg friend-betraying adulterer here) also make that list, as does Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho, if you believe what Fernando Torres has to say. El Niño’s just about the world’s best striker when healthy so we’ll believe him on this one.

Vidi? may not have a traditional soccer powerhouse country next to his name like the rest of the players on that shortlist, but Serbia is no joke, and neither is Nemanja. The Serbians have built themselves a solid team around highly talented players at every position. Chelsea employs defender Branislav Ivanovi?, midfielder Dejan Stankovi? keys Inter Milan’s attack, and Danko Lazovi? is constantly knocking goals in for PSV Einhoven. Vidi? is the best of the bunch, and he’s still at the front end of his prime.

In 2006 Vidi? made the jump from Spartak Moscow to Manchester United and he’s been a household name for Premier League fans ever since. United’s formerly stalwart and formerly rock-steady center back Rio Ferdinand has been taking a break from exemplifying those traits for the past couple years and seems content to now remain inconsistent and oft injured. Giant Serbian bald-headed superhero to the rescue! Vidi? has stepped in and become the player Rio once was, perhaps even better. Man U’s formula had Ferdinand at the core of its defense, and a seemingly ever-rotating partner on the backline of Fergie’s 4-4-2. Vidi? has become the ever-present center back, with Ferdinand now deputizing beside him when fit.

Vidi?’s size and style of play make the Zdeno Chára comparisons work perfectly. Both men are physical specimens for their sport. Chára is a towering 6-foot-9 (without his skates on!) and though Vidi? only goes 6-foot-2, he plays like he’s seven feet tall. And we’re not dealing with Joakim Noah in his freshman year with these guys either; Chára weighs in at 255 pounds, and Vidi? is a solid 190 pounds (don’t even ask me how many stone that is because I’m from America and I’m okay with having no idea).

It’s not just the size that these defensemen benefit from though; it’s knowing how to use it. The mental makeup and feel for positioning allows each of these fine gentlemen, whom I would not want to meet in a dark alley, to defend at a world class level without looking like they’re doing anything particularly special to the naked eye. We’re apt to “ooh” and “ahh” at big open-ice hits in hockey and successful slide tackles on the soccer pitch, but Vidi? and Chára are literally too good to log many of these crowd pleasing moments. Chára doesn’t have to take a run at you if you’ve got the puck, because if you’re his responsibility he’s already on top of you. Vidi? won’t be sliding at the ball because he’s already denied the entry pass with his head or feet. And if you’ve somehow procured the ball in his area he’s denied you a run at goal with his body and left you only the wing to turn or pass to, IF you’re good enough to make that move.

Vidi? and Chára also each bring one skill to the table going forward on attack. Vidi? is a menace on set pieces. Anytime Manchester United or Serbia wins a free kick or corner Nemanja is as dangerous a man to have in the box as any, and not just because he’s Serbian (low blow, please don’t hurt me). Even if you don’t have the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo going for goal or David Beckham swinging in a corner, a tall defender who knows how to leverage his weight, can jump high, and can finish with his gargantuan noggin is a great weapon to have. On the hockey side of things, it’s probably no surprise that the biggest man in the NHL has one monster slap shot. Yeah he plays the point on one of the Bruins’ power play units, but not because he can distribute like Sergei Federov. Sometimes just the threat of the best power-slapper in the league creates openings for the rest of the team to generate scoring chances.

Interestingly for our comparison’s purposes, not only does Chára’s Slovak national team mirror Serbia’s soccer team, but we’ll have the chance to see them play in the Olympics in two weeks. Like Serbia, the Slovakian national team is a nice assortment of highly skilled players (most of them scorers in this case, Gáborík, Hossa, Šatan, etc.), but their chances still fall more squarely on the shoulders of Chára than any one other player. The Slovak’s are in a group with the Czech Republic, Russia, and Latvia. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare in Vancouver, and maybe it’ll even give us an idea of how the Serbs will do when they take on Germany, Australia, and Ghana in South Africa. Here’s to the Nemanja Vidi? v. Brian Ching 120 minute war in the first knockout round! Where’s a bloody Brian McBride when you need him!?

Jon Levy is a senior writer and managing editor for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon@yanksarecoming.com.

Jon Levy