Five star: Rio Ferdinand's return to action has meant a dramatic rise in clean sheets for Manchester United

Sixty-seven minutes into Monday night's game at Old Trafford and it seemed as though Rio Ferdinand had put an end to the impressive sequence he had been building. As he leaped earnestly skyward to win a header against Bacary Sagna on the halfway line, the centre-half's right foot appeared unnecessarily high, a belief that was verified a few moments later when the Arsenal full-back got back to his feet after the challenge to reveal a tear right the way across his shirt. Howard Webb, though, didn't deem it necessary to blow his whistle and so the 32-year-old's run of not having committed a foul of any description since 11 April against Blackburn continues unchecked. That's 12 games, and counting.

Some football purists will be aghast at the thought of a centre-half gone so long without conceding a free-kick. The likes of Norman Hunter, Tommy Smith or Ron Harris would no doubt suggest that the man simply can't be doing his job properly unless he's ploughing through the back of a centre-forward on occasion, or taking a hit for the team by scything down an opponent in a promising position. Yet in Ferdinand's case, the evidence is there to suggest he's doing his job extremely well, thank you very much. In the 10 Premier League games Ferdinand has played for Manchester United this season, his side have kept clean sheets in five. Overall, United have conceded seven goals in the 10 games Ferdinand has played, and 10 in the six where he has been absent. Rather than a sign of weakness, it would appear his squeaky-clean record isn't doing either him or his team any harm.

His debilitating injury record over the past season or two – a chronic lower-back injury that has followed him around for starters, not to mention the knee ligament problem that ruled him out of the World Cup – has made it easy to forget how good a defender Ferdinand actually is. Out of sight, he has been out of mind. He doesn't rule by muscle or persistence, although he is capable of using both when the need arises. Instead, he's a centre-half that relies on his prescient ability to read a game, as well as his extraordinary balance and composure, to protect United's goal. Monday night was a prime example of all that, with two moments standing out. In the game's final minute, Theo Walcott whipped a cross towards Robin van Persie at the far post. It was the first cross that Arsenal had put into box all night, yet there was Ferdinand, half a foot in front of the French striker, nodding the ball off his head and away to safety. The other moment came 10 minutes previous. Samir Nasri picked up the ball on the left, cut inside and spotted Van Persie on the edge of the box. As the Frenchman's brain ticked over, so did Ferdinand's, and when the attempted through ball was delivered, the defender was standing a yard in front of the striker. It was pure class.

There was a time, however, when juxtaposing the words "Ferdinand" and "class" only referred to the man's ability as a footballer, not his overall character. In his late teens and early twenties, the defender went through the entire gambit of idiotic behaviour. To start with, he appeared in a sex tape shot on-location in Ayia Napa, with Frank Lampard and Kieron Dyer. Over the course of an eight-year period, he was disqualified from driving on four separate occasions. He was also banned for eight months in 2004 having controversially failed to turn up for a drugs test. He came across as the archetypal Premier League footballer: monied, self-obsessed, arrogant.

But not anymore. Social media has a lot to answer for, creating as it has a community of narcissistic, attention-seeking nobodies, but when it comes to Ferdinand and his twitter contributions, it has somehow served to humanise him, to show that his life, even on a wage of £125,000 a week, is not all that different to that of the average 32-year-old male's. Take last Sunday, for example. Through Ferdinand's twitter feed we learned that he went training with United in the morning, then returned home to watch Bolton versus Blackburn and Tottenham against Chelsea. After marvelling at the pace of the latter game, and openly complaining about some of referee Mike Dean's more bizarre decisions ("I'll say it again.... mike dean.....!"), he then sat down with the wife to watch the final of X-Factor. There cannot be a more ordinary way to spend a Sunday. Since then, he has thanked United supporters in South Korea who sent boxes of sweets to the club, talked about the fun he had driving his "lil men", sons Lorenz and Tate, to school and quoted a line – "I'd rather die enormous than live dormant" – from a Jay-Z song. Social media is going a long way towards restoring the link between footballer and supporter.

Ferdinand's rehabilitation, however, isn't all about twitter. Where most footballers seem happy to simply accumulate their money, the man brought up in a council estate in Peckham – home to Del Boy Trotter, you might remember – possesses the entrepreneurial spirit to go and make it work for him. "My dad was a tailor," Ferdinand explained recently. "He used to have blazers that he'd made, and as a kid I'd be thinking to myself, 'If only he'd had his name initialled on the inside'." The son hasn't made the same mistake.

Ferdinand has a quite dizzying array of business ventures on the go, which must have kept him occupied during his spells on the treatment table. Last year, he opened an Italian restaurant called Rosso, which has proved hugely popular with the city's glitterati. He has also recently become involved in designing his own range of shoes called Five. Ferdinand also publishes an online magazine called #5, is involved in a record label called White Chalk Music and acted as executive-producer, along with Ashley Cole, for British gangster movie Dead Man Running. Overall, he is listed as a director of 10 separate companies, and lest you think it's all about the money, he has also established a charity called Live the Dream, which aims to raise aspiration level in deprived urban areas through cultural, sporting and artistic programmes.

That same entrepreneurial spirit has recently seen Ferdinand fishing for a new deal with United. "I have two years on my contract, and if the manager sees that I am fit enough, a four-year deal at that age would be great," he said this week. Ferguson, you'd imagine, is not blind to his worth. Ferdinand is one of only three world-class footballers, alongside Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic, likely to take to the field for United against Chelsea this afternoon. That's Ferdinand's present worth, but he has a future one, too. Having seen the positive effect Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville have had on those around them in their late 30s, the Scot will surely do everything in his power to ensure that Ferdinand stays until he hangs up his boots.

There is another parallel with Giggs, Scholes and Neville. All were once young United players with the temptations of their position placed in front of them, and all more or less eschewed them with the help of Ferguson's guidance. He may have taken a while to get a grip on Ferdinand following his arrival from Leeds in 2002 but over the past nine seasons, he has helped mould an occasionally reckless youth into an ambitious, well-behaved individual. What an example Ferdinand is for Ferguson to point to: listen to me and this is what you could become.

Back to twitter. And Ferdinand's run of foul-less games. On Tuesday, the defender apologised to Sagna for that unpunished challenge the night before. "BTW I never meant to kick Sagna, I went for the ball (eyes on the ball)," he tweeted. "Accidents do happen. Sorry for tha." Maintain this nice-guy imagine and Ferdinand may never be blown for a foul again.