From Arsene Wenger’s dodgy defenders to Liverpool’s comic lack of width, the most satisfying transfer window jibes are the ones that prod the exposed nerve of a perennial squad weakness; recruitment issues that always appear so obvious and easy to fix to the press and fans alike. These days the jokes are on Manchester United’s midfield.
Take your pick of lead ins – the financial rot of Glazernomics, another exaggerated “exodus” of youth prospects, Sir Alex Ferguson’s oblivious obsession with forwards and wingers rather than middle men – the punchline is always the same.
It seems that while Spain have taken to winning tournaments without a recognised striker, United have decided to innovate the world’s first midfielder-less squad with, shall we say, mixed results.
Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new, but last season’s pedestrian displays and failures forced the issue anew; over run by a rampant Manchester City, out pressed by a determined Athletic Bilbao and out fought by the European giants of FC Basel.
What’s missing from the Manchester United midfield?
The midfield often appeared uninspired and clumsy last year, especially without Paul Scholes at the helm, but there’s also a lack of physical energy and power within the guts of the team. Momentum looks hard to come by in the centre of the park for Manchester United.
Newcastle’s all-action duo of Cabaye and Tiote enjoyed far too much freedom in the 3-0 loss at St James Park, and United struggled to apply similar pressure in return. The two legs against Bilbao featured a United seemingly unable to match, counter or even respond to Bielsa’s extreme and committed pressing game. Again in the league, the two high-score draws against Chelsea and Everton last season showed up a worrying inability to hold onto the ball, retain possession and keep control of a game when placed under pressure. These problems were devastatingly illustrated in the 6-1 defeat to Manchester City. While the dismissal of Jonny Evans hardly helped United, after going a goal up the team lost their heads and poured forward, losing the ball and paying a humiliating price for their impetuity.
Energy, flexibility, intelligence, work rate, composure, maturity, muscle and vision were all missing or in short supply during these encounters and many others throughout the last few years. Even during seemingly comfortable matches, United can often appear on the brink of losing their grip on a game, either through a sudden on-set of nerves or physical complacency.
That isn’t to say that Michael Carrick and co lack the required quality to play in midfield for Manchester United. Far from it. Instead, for the last few seasons United have looked a player light in midfield, with the rest of the roster overworked and under supported, with performances suffering as a result. With a more combative and dynamic character in the middle, perhaps the more creative players could make their presence felt.
Ask yourself, if both Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher had been fully fit and available last season, would United have looked so impotent in the middle? Both work hard, harassing opposition players to win back the ball, while creating space and offering penetration with their vertical runs from deep. More tellingly, would the issue of an underpowered midfield ever have been raised had Owen Hargreaves’ body, and Manchester United career, stayed intact?
Rather than an expensive and narrow specialist such as Wesley Sneijder, United lack of an adaptable all rounder able to work hard for the team, tracking back, maintaining possession and contributing to the attacking play when possible. Some have suggested that answers will be found within the existing ranks at Old Trafford while others have proclaimed the arrivals of Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell as the long sought after solutions needed.
More left-field thinkers have even suggested Wayne Rooney as a suitable replacement to Scholes, especially if the improbable pursuit of Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie comes to anything. Unfortunately, its likely United’s eventual midfield saviour will spend the next Manchester Derby marking the Dutchman out of the game.
Much depends on the plans of the man in charge and how, historically, he has constructed the cores of his most successful sides.
How does Sir Alex Ferguson set up his midfield?
Tactically, Fergie’s focus has always been on emphasising the qualities of his players rather than fitting footballers into a intricate, pedantic system.
In the 90’s, the engine room of United’s 4-4-2 was a flexible pivot of two box-to-box midfielders such as Bryan Robson and Paul Ince, Paul Ince and Roy Keane or Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. These pairs were reliant on the intelligence, awareness and well-rounded skill sets of the two players selected, who would need to contribute all over the pitch. For example; if one of the midfielders advanced the other would stay back and defend. Such pairings didn’t always feature identically skilled players of course – Roy Keane was a runner and tackler who could pass and create while Scholes was a creative passer and runner who could foul – but the general idea was of a balanced two able to complement and cover each other, adapting on the fly to the game as it was played. United’s midfielders had to athletic all rounders.
In the mid 00’s, Fergie looked to move away from his reliance on 4-4-2 derived formations, especially in Europe, and began using a 4-5-1 system with Michael Carrick as a midfield passing hub sweeping up in front of the back four. Ahead of him would either be two tackler runners able to protect and energise the midfield such as Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea or later Anderson and Owen Hargreaves, or a tackler runner and a creative passer such as Paul Scholes. The age of the do-it-all generalists was over in favour of increased tactical sophistication and specialism.
As with their three man midfields, the central pairings of United’s traditional 4-4-2 patterns became more and more specialised. The disparate strengths and styles of the midfield roster meant that certain players were predisposed to certain roles, making player selection and combination ever more tactically acute. Like picking the right ingredients for the right dish, depending on the make up of the match ahead, Ferguson could choose from the vision and ball retention of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick’s awareness and stability in possession, the muscular box-to-box energy of Anderson or the hard running bite of Darren Fletcher to name the four key players.
At the start of last season United appeared to be heading back to the future with Tom Cleverley, a player more similar to the all-rounders of the 90’s, and Anderson flying up and down the centre of the pitch like it was 1999 all over again. Their close ball control and reckless but effective charges forward created fantastically fluid link-up play with Rooney, Welbeck, Young and Nani. Once injuries had put paid to such promising, retro-tinged experiments however, Carrick and Scholes became the pivot of choice in the latter half of the season, focusing on their shared passing abilities and composure in possession rather than their physical limitations. This saw United drop back and lose almost all of the frantic intensity of Cleverley and Anderson, with the team patiently standing off and relying on the flanks for penetration.
With their opposing strengths and considerable weaknesses, Sir Alex may consider taking elements from each approach going into the 2012/13 season or decide to alternate between such styles. After all, different opponents often require a change of tact, and with the extended return of Paul Scholes, a more patient and studied game plan can be viable in the right fixtures.
Neither appear to be solid foundations for a new midfield however, with apparent compromises in both systems. United need a player who can bridge the gap and combine these approaches into a fluid and dynamic regime that can retain possession, press well and encourage creative link up play with the forwards.
So what or who are the potential solutions?
It’s easy to look to the past and Roy Keane when coming up with an instant answer to the dilemma, but the game has moved on and so has Alex Ferguson.
Michael Carrick is now the key man in Manchester United’s midfield, and his arrival in 2006 was a sign that Sir Alex wouldn’t be attempting to extend a fading era with a like-for-like replacement for the Irishman. Instead, Carrick would play a pivotal role in developing a new approach in midfield focused on possession and defensive positioning rather than power and hard tackles. While overworked and under-loved however he lacks initiative, and his greatest performances have always come alongside players ready to take the lead and build off of Carrick’s excellent foundation and set of skills that make him the perfect assistant and team-player infront of the defence. This is what made the Carrick and Scholes partnership so successful in the second half of the season last year who, even without the cover of hard runners, were able to overcome and control teams through superior technique and composure on the ball.
However, bossing a struggling Aston Villa side or Terry Connor’s hapless Wolves is a world away from handling the sophistications and quality of the European scene and top four. Whether United play with a two-man or three-man midfield, a balance needs to be found between the attacking anarchy of Cleverley and Anderson, and the blunted stillness of Scholes and Carrick.
With the future of Darren Fletcher’s football career looking tragically bleak, United must find another midfield soldier, a creative alternative to the aging Paul Scholes, and a new perfect partner for the overworked and under-loved Michael Carrick, but who?
Tom Cleverley seems to have it all: an eye for the right pass, the stomach for a battle and a hunger to get involved and take responsibility. Injuries curtailed a promising start to last season, but he is a solid footballer with surprising aggression and defensive commitment for a player often touted as an attacking midfielder and winger in his youth. If his development continutes, Cleverley could an all action box-to-box dynamo fit for the modern game, and a berth alongside the more measured Michael Carrick.
Shinji Kagawa is in many ways reminiscant of a younger Paul Scholes, with a keen eye for goal and excellent technical skills. As an integral part of an exciting and attacking Dortmund team, the Japanese was also required to contribute defensively to Jurgan Klopp’s aggressive pressing strategy. While slight in build he is far tougher than first impressions may suggest, and could be a classy and energetic partner in a new-look midfield two.
Signed from Crewe Alexandra for £6M earlier this summer, many United fans assumed Nick Powell would be immediately loaned out to a Premiership or Championship side for the forthcoming season. Instead, Sir Alex seems keen to involve the 18 year old in first duties right away. Like Cleverley, he is a precocious, dynamic player with the appetite to track back, press, tackle and fight for his team. If Powell turns out to be the real deal United could have found their future midfield all-rounder for a cut-price fee.
When Anderson arrived at Old Trafford in 2007 for the princely sum of £20M, the prospect of a goal-scoring, flair-filled Brazilian midfield fulcrum set mouths watering among United fans. Five years on and the initial buzz has disipated following persistant injury and middling form, seemingly along with Anderson’s promise as a powerhouse attacking midfielder. Now mocked for his apparant weight issues, the 24-year-old could yet offer United substance in the midfield. His brash double act with Cleverley early last year was hardly perfect, but it did showcase Anderson’s short passing and desire to burst forward. After five seasons of unreliable fitness and deflated form however, it’s doubtful he’ll be more than cover for the other midfield contenders.
As a younger man, Paul Scholes regularly played in United’s attack, or in the hole just behind strikers such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Could Wayne Rooney pull off a similar transition in the future? We took a light-hearted look at such a move through the fictional lense of Football Manager last month, and the former Evertonian enjoyed a few cameos further in-field last season, most notably against Otelul Galati in United’s disappointing Champions League campaign. As a footballer, Rooney can be an impressively complete player when fit and in-form, something which unfortunately can’t be taken for granted considering his off-the-field lifestyle. As a forward, he already drops back to assist in United’s passing and approach game, fashioning chances and bringing other into play. Once Rooney begins to lose his pace and acceleration to age – it’s doubtful he’ll be able to replicate Ryan Giggs’ never-ending Indian Summer considering his love of booze, burgers and smokes – he may find midfield to be more accomodating to his less-physical qualities.
What do you think United lack in midfield, and who could be the solution?