Alex Chick

Vidic leaves worrying mess behind at Manchester United

Manchester United won't miss Nemanja Vidic's influence on the pitch when he leaves Old Trafford.

Not because they have a ready-made replacement for their imposing captain, but because they are already missing him.

A fateful knee injury sustained in Basel in 2011 reduced him to a cruel parody of the man who formed, with Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar, a defensive barrier formidable enough to keep the Somerset levels bone dry.

Although he seemed more likely than Ferdinand to adapt to his new physical limitations and maintain his influential presence - as John Terry has done at Chelsea - Vidic has played only sporadically alongside a variety of flawed partners.

So Vidic's departure in itself is not the problem - it's what it means for United, and what he leaves behind.

Why exactly is he going? Because, at 32, he wants one last big payday? Surely not. As United's captain, he would not struggle to renegotiate a bumper deal if he stayed put.

Vidic talked about a new challenge. Translation: Time is running out on his career, and he wants to win some more trophies. He cannot wait around for United to emerge from their slump.

Last season looks increasingly like Ferguson squeezing the last ounce of success from and ageing and flawed squad.

Vidic is off, Rio Ferdinand will surely follow. Two years ago United looked embarrassingly well off for central defenders, with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling joining a fearsome core of Vidic, Ferdinand and Jonny Evans.

Now what have they got? Evans is good but not great, Smalling spends most of his time slotting awkwardly into the right-back slot, and Jones simply looks lost - a man in danger of squandering ample talent because nobody at United seems to know what position he plays.

The United dressing room is full of men looking backwards at their prime - Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs.

And then what? If the anticipated exodus of senior players signals the end of a glorious era, what is to keep Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney or David De Gea at Old Trafford?

Of course, that's a doomsday scenario. Maybe United are just in transition, in which case Vidic's departure helps - Jones and Smalling can finally play the position that god intended.

But United are not meant to do transition. For over 20 years they have largely ignored the concept of an off-season - always targeting trophies, always competing.

Only at the start of his reign did Ferguson take a step back in exchange for two forwards - but he didn't inherit a title-winning squad.

Despite their unlikely success last season, David Moyes is overseeing a mob in desperate need of surgery.

As the old guard falls away, what is there? A clutch of not-quite-good-enoughs – Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley – and it was this willingness to exchange top class for a step down that ended Liverpool and Arsenal’s dominant spells in the early 1990s and mid-2000s.

Of course United still have some quality – Van Persie, Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata.

But compare that side to Vidic’s finest hour, winning the Champions League in 2008 – the starters in Moscow: Van der Sar – Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra – Hargreaves, Carrick, Scholes – Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez.

Brown stands out as the only potential weak link (though the 2007/08 campaign was, by a distance, his best) – now United are a team of holes being held together by a teenager, a money-grabber and a striker whose injury problems are back with a worrying vengeance.

Why wouldn’t Vidic look at that and conclude the tail end of his career lies elsewhere?

Always a master of timing a vital tackle, Vidic has chosen the right moment to leave Old Trafford – leaving behind him a worrying mess.