Have Manchester United found the solutions to their midfield problems?

Originally published as Has Fergie Finally Got The Midfield Options To Compete With Barca & Real? for Sabotage Times. A follow up to the earlier Some Goals post What’s Missing From United’s Midfield?

Carrick: the midfield logistics man.

Over the past few years Manchester United have become a team that can be bullied. An unbalanced and underpowered midfield has seen hard pressing teams and domineering, powerhouse players punch through Sir Alex Ferguson’s fragile underbelly.

The opening two games of this season featured two such midfielders who seemed to burst through United’s core with impunity. Marouane Fellaini is an awkward player at the best of times, and from his advanced position was also a direct pest and threat to the makeshift defense of Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic. Without the legs or familiarity required, the defensive line could not be pushed up high in order to negate the dangers posed by the Belgian by keeping him up-field and away from De Gea’s goal.

Yesterday against Fulham, Moussa Dembele enjoyed similar freedom but when playing the ball on the deck. His athleticism and skill saw him brush past and dance through United players with ease, and he provided much of the impetus to keep Martin Jol’s men in the game and pushing for an equalizer.

Fellaini, Dembele and Yaya Toure: players of great power, physique and skill who cannot be countered by individual players. Such dynamic midfield threats must be approached tactically and collectively, and Manchester United now have an impressive array of midfield options in their arsenal with which to adapt their game plan and shape accordingly. The key is in the combination or players and their complementary qualities.

Last season United’s midfield featured two distinct set ups featuring different personnel and player blends. At the beginning of 2011/12, Tom Cleverley and Anderson combined to create an exciting yet erratic pivot full of attacking ambition and energetic bursts forward. The pairing often lacked the cover and defensive screening required to prevent the opposition from taking advantage of an abundance of space left by their swashbuckling raids forwards however.

After Christmas, and with the return of Paul Scholes, United’s midfield took an entirely different approach. Focusing on Scholes’ passing ability, awareness and lack of mobility and stamina, the midfield sat very deep with Michael Carrick regularly playing alongside his former partner in a supportive role, mopping up in front of the back four. Carrick is an undervalued asset to many fans, and is the perfect team player with the skill set to match, but he lacks the confidence and initiative to lead effectively and consistently. Place him alongside some happy to take control and set the agenda and he is an excellent player. This is what made the deep-lying combo of Carrick and Scholes so effective against lesser opposition, who were out paced into submission. Against Manchester City and other physical, skilful and mobile midfields however, the two technocrats couldn’t cope.

Looking at the experiments and misadventures of last season, it’s clear that the solution lies somehow between these two polar-opposite approaches, with Michael Carrick a key man in whatever shape the Manchester United midfield will take.

Against Everton, Sir Alex attempted to augment the Scholes approach with the added energy and edge of Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa. This may have worked had Wayne Rooney been fit, Nani on form and the defense able to push up as mentioned above. Instead, the baggy defensive line left the midfield too space to work with, although the short passing and link up play going forward was promising. A complete and functioning defense would have also freed up Michael Carrick to play in midfield – its possible that Scholes played more out of compromise than design with United’s other passing hub player required to deputise at the back. Unable to keep up with the dynamic threat of Fellaini and the on-runners that rushed up to support him, Scholes struggled to cope with the game’s intensity when off the ball.

Yesterday versus Fulham, Ferguson again tried another development on an idea from last year. Tom Cleverley and Anderson lined up as the team’s midfield dynamo with Shinji Kagawa in the hole in front. With the Japanese ahead of them, the duo were able to temper their attacking instincts, safe in the knowledge that the attackers wouldn’t be left isolated without their runs. The full-backs and wingers contributed significantly too, with Evra providing width on the left to allow Young to cut inside to assist with the approach game, and Rafael driving up on the inside right, with Valencia stretching the play out on the right. Cleverley looked more mature and assured in his role than during his run out last season, and was happier to hold his ground further back while Anderson rampaged forwards and back. Both Twitter and the match day commentary team highlighted his Scholes-esque appearance, hanging around outside the six-yard box at set pieces and focusing much of his game on making himself available to others in order to keep the ball and redirect passes. His thunderbolt from just outside of the box that set up Kagawa for his tap in was very reminiscent of Scholes and his penchant for volleyed screamers.

Once again however, the central defensive pairing was sluggish due to injury and Carrick’s discomfort when put under pressure at the back. With a mobile, settled back line Cleverley and Anderson will have received more support from the back line as a unit, giving them a better chance of containing and restricting Dembele’s influence by working as a team.

Its possible that next week’s action against Southampton will see Scholes’ return to the side, possibly alongside Carrick with Evans potentially fit enough to play next to Vidic. This combination offers maximum ball retention and control, which will be key against Southampton, especially since United would rather conserve their energy for the more decisive battles to come this season. If the full-backs and wingers can offer sufficient support too, this deep-lying midfield platform shouldn’t struggle to provide penetration going forward, due to their vision and passing abilities. Kagawa is sure to start again with Robin Van Persie, who both offer excellent movement and skill, and will drop back to link up play and assist as needed too.

However, bossing a newly promoted Southampton who lack physical monsters in their midfield is, like United’s conquests of McLeish’s Aston Villa and Terry Connor’s hapless Wolves, a world away from handling the sophistications and quality of the European scene and top four.

With Darren Fletcher’s immediate future uncertain, United need steel to compliment their skill. While touted as an attack minded and creative player, Tom Cleverley has the legs and bite to harass opponents and battle for the ball, although in the right set-up Anderson can often look impressively imposing too. Alongside Cleverley, the Brazilian can look like an intimidating and muscular player, happy to mow down anyone in his path. As ever though consistency is his weakness, and Anderson has much to do to prove his doubters wrong.

Nick Powell, who will apparently be staying at the club rather than being loaned out, looks like an exciting and interesting proposition too. He could perhaps be the utility man that fills the currently vacant centre of the Manchester United midfield Venn diagram much like Owen Hargreaves once did. A solid all round footballer is exactly what the squad needs considering the current injury crisis curse that’s haunted Old Trafford of late. As always there are a plethora of exciting prospects waiting in the wings too although first team action will likely be limited to league cup run outs this year.

At long last, reading out the roster of players available to Sir Alex in midfield looks intriguing rather than insipid, each player offering their own set of skills and tactical influences. Selecting a two or three man midfield from Anderson, Carrick, Cleverley, Giggs, Kagawa, Powell, Scholes and Fletcher once fit offers an excellent array of set ups and combinations that should be able to fit most fixtures. Phil Jones is also on hand for emergencies or exceptionally defensive briefs.

While their opening two games have been far from perfect in their execution, the signs suggest that Manchester United’s midfield crisis may well be at an end. A fit again Tom Cleverley and the attacking responsibilities shouldered by Shinji Kagawa means that the overworked and under loved Michael Carrick’s lengthy stretch as a one-man midfield appears to finally, and thankfully, be over.

Freed from his exhaustive duties, Carrick, the support player, will hopefully enjoy some belated appreciation from the masses, although don’t hold your breath.

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