"Attack wins you games; defence wins you titles.": This was said by the same man who said, "Give me 10 pieces of wood and Zinedine Zidane and I will win the Champions League."
You guessed it: it was Sir Alex Ferguson who said it, and we'd like to believe he knew what he was doing. It is no wonder then that most of the defenders on this list come from the time when Ferguson was at the helm. Let's see who they are.
Here are the top 7 defenders in Manchester Untied's history:
7. Patrice Evra
Evra is a cult hero at Old Trafford. His attitude towards the club has always been one of respect, pride and gratitude. His commitment to the badge extended onto the pitch and despite a disastrous start against rivals Manchester City, Evra grew to become a key member of United’s defensive core throughout his eight years at the club.
Evra was a smart defender. Instead of going to the ground, he would stay on his feet and observe the opponent’s movement before making a decision. His pace made him a formidable opponent for wingers but also gave Untied an edge in attack.
6. Jaap Stam
It is hard to describe how manly this man was. Maybe a picture will. Sitting on the sideline with a doctor stitching a nasty tear just above his left eye. Cheek-bones chiseled like a MF, eyes moving dexterously in the shade thrown by his protruding eyebrow bones, blood dripping from the needle going in and out while the doctor stitches him up. The doctor’s hands shaking while Stam looks like a sophisticated caveman intrigued by a conversation over a cup of coffee.
His uncompromising but timely tackles send many a striker wondering what hit them. Even though he spent only three years at United, Stam provided an unbreakable backbone to help the club to its most successful years in history: three successive Premier League titles culminating in a treble in 1999.
5. Denis Irwin
There is a video clip somewhere on Youtube in which Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira meet again, after their retirements, with only a table separating them. The task at hand: to discuss their old rivalry and choose a combined XI between Arsenal and Manchester Untied of their playing times. For the matter of left-back, Vieira was left dumbfounded as to why Keane would insist on choosing Denis Irwin ahead of Ashley Cole.
Even Alex Ferguson said he would chose him in his ideal Xi any time and told a story of how Irwin was asked by the press whether he was disappointed by a wrong pass during a match against Arsenal.
His response was ‘Well, one mistake in 10 years isn’t bad.’ Indeed.
4. Bill Foulkes
Having won the title five years after starting his professional career with Manchester United, Foulkes must have been going over his terrific performance against the subsequent European Cup victory against Red Star when taking his seat on the plane. It was 1958, and as Foulkes described later:
“The plane was bouncing along and obviously not going fast enough and then suddenly there were three tremendous sickening thuds and everything was spinning around. A second later I was sitting in my seat with my feet on the snow.”
Foulkes was so shattered that he contemplated retirement at 26, but Sir Matt Busby convinced him to continue. Donned with the captain’s armband the defender helped United to two more league titles – an overall tally of 10 trophies.
Foulkes was the face of the Busby Babes and was much respected at the Theater of Dreams until his death in 2013.
3. Nemanja Vidic
Vidic is one of Ferguson’s best bargain buys, costing United only 6 million to bring him in from Spartak Moscow in 2006. Vidic’s qualities were such that he blended well with defensive partner Rio Ferdinand, forming one of the most stable partnerships in the Premier League. While Ferdinand was the tactical one, Vidic was the brave one. He played for the ball, often leading him to ‘invade’ the personal space of the attacking player.
Vidic was almost unplayable with air balls. He contributed eight of his best career years to United and was a key member in one of the finer sides of the decade.
2. Rio Ferdinand
It’s about choice with Rio Ferdinand. Such was his quality as a footballer he could’ve easily played in midfielder, and would’ve been a decent striker as well had he chosen. He chose defence, and he didn’t get it wrong.
When Alex Ferguson bought him from Leeds for 28 million, a record signing for a defender at Manchester United, a few raised their eyebrows. Little did they know Ferdinand would become the most dominant defensive figure in the red shirt in the last 50 years.
He was an all round complete defender: good tactical awareness, great timing with tackling, but also good technique and pace in his younger years.
1. Gary Neville
As a player, Gary Neville was a Manchester Untied legend in his own right for having started and finished his career at Old Trafford. He couldn’t have done it without the quality. Neville was a stable and combative defender couple with enviable attacking mentality which enabled him to form a terrific understanding with class of ’92 teammate David Beckham.
Arguably the best full-back in United history, Neville was there at birth of the modern day Premier League, all along until Ferguson’s last Premier League trophy before retirement. Neville’s intelligence on the pitch helped United win eight league trophies and two Champions League ones. He has now transferred that same understanding of the game into TV, often giving insightful and detailed analysis on Sky Sports as a pundit.