When it comes to learning about the fine art of defending, a group of Dubai youngsters were spoiled this week by England and Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand.
Ferdinand, 38, brought a rarified air to centre-back play during a distinguished career in which he won every major competition going with the Red Devils from 2002-14 and gained 81 caps for his country.
After retiring two years ago after a one-season spell at Queens Park Rangers, the Londoner has gone on to become a pundit with BT Sport and impart his knowledge with Football Escapes alongside friend and former Premier League striker, Bobby Zamora.
It was with this pursuit where Sport360 caught up with him at Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Hotel to discuss the Red Devils, how to defend with aplomb and the identity of his dream five-a-side team…
Q) How important is it that manager Jose Mourinho can return Manchester United to the Champions League?
A) Getting in the Champions League, no matter how United get there, is the remit I am sure for the manager.
However they get there, people will be satisfied. This is because once you are in the Champions League, you can then start planning for recruitment with the Champions League in your back pocket.
People know they cannot come up to you and say: ‘you haven’t got Champions League, I don’t want to come’.
They’ve got a window where maybe if they didn’t get in the Champions League for the next two or three years, because of the size of the club and potential that is still there.
Liverpool are a great example. They dominated the 1980s and now in terms of fighting for players, Liverpool would come quite a way down the roster when it comes to signing the top players on the planet.
How have you gauged this season for United?
The way the club has played this season is an improvement on the last few seasons under two other managers.
They’re on an unbeaten run, but the only problem with that is too many draws.
That means their position in the table [outside the top four] hasn’t really altered. That has been a disappointing element. But I just see signs that the team, with the right transfers in this window coming up, can make strides forward.
It is very important to finish in the Champions League positions or win the Europa League if they are to attract the biggest stars. It is an important next couple of months, on different fronts, for Manchester United.
Ivory Coast centre-back Eric Bailly arrived at United this season. What have you made of him and what areas would you like to see him work on?
He’s aggressive, he’s always on the front foot trying to win the first ball. That’s great, you’ve just got to pick your moments and making sure you don’t leave yourself exposed.
He’s had a decent first season, in which a few injuries have set him back a little bit. He’s very athletic, which you need in the modern game.
On the ball, it is something which he’ll need to keep on working. He’s got all the tools and credentials to be a top defender if he keeps on improving.
Striker Marcus Rashford’s emergence has been a huge boost for United. What are your first memories of him?
It was the way he moved well. He was a bit behind physically to the others, but you could see that technical ability to run past players and glide like the wind.
He was a nice footballer to watch. But honestly, to say he’d go on to burst onto the scene like he has, I don’t think many people at the club could sit here and say that.
It is refreshing to see players can still come out of nowhere and just go bang. I love the way he plays, he’s something United should invest all their time and effort into making him the No9.
What have you made about some of the exits from Old Trafford since you left?
I just look at the team and I just think it is so disappointing. You could have Chicharito [Javier Hernandez, who’s now at Bayer Leverkusen], Danny Welbeck [now at Arsenal] and Rashford.
Could you imagine? As a defender, I am sitting here thinking ‘there is no rest’.
How have you found your training sessions in Dubai?
Myself and Bobby have both got young kids, so we are well versed in interacting with the younger generation. Out here with the weather like it is, taking the kids of their parents’ hands for a couple of hours a day is rewarding for the parents and also the kids get something out of it. They’ll learn something every day.
When you are teaching kids, is defending an art or something more basic?
Defending is definitely an art. I think it is something you get better at with time. I like cool-headed defenders, I don’t like emotional defenders who get caught up in situations and the moments. They are volatile.
Being cool, calm and collected and seeing clearly at all times is very important. Also, being good one-on-one.
Especially in today’s game, if you can defend one-on-one, whether it is physical or tactical, I think you’ve got a good chance.
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