There is little to deny that the current Manchester United midfield is a shell of its former glory. Gone are the days when Roy Keane would patrol the pitch like an overzealous guard dog, bulldozing all in his path. And whilst Paul Scholes still remains, his mobility is reduced, and the loss of his Irish pit-bull partner has left a hole so deep that even the talents of Djemba Djemba and Liam Miller couldn’t plug it.
Ferguson has already shown his intent to revitalise the United midfield this summer with the capture of Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa from double German champions, Borussia Dortmund. The 23 year old will certainly improve the United squad and is an exciting talent to have on board. Two-footed and attack minded, Kagawa likes to play behind the striker as a No. 10 or out wide as a winger-cum-midfielder. Whilst he loves scoring goals, 17 goals in 43 last season, he is an unselfish player, delighting equally in laying on teammates. He notched 13 assists in 43 the previous term. Kagawa will allow Fergie a lot more versatility, especially when switching to one up front in Europe.
With this addition, United’s midfield starts to look less dilapidated. However, one thing that Kagawa is not is a centre midfielder, and he could struggle to fit into a 4-4-2 formation. More accurately he could be considered a luxury player. Blessed with skill and flair, Kagawa can lubricate the cogs of a well-oiled machine. However, he is not a central cog, nor is he a controller. Generally, he won’t take over games or dominate and thus Kagawa is not the central midfield solution United badly crave.
Yet, this is the area that United are so desperately thin. On occasions last season, they were shown up in the centre of the park, most notably when Yaya Toure tore through the midfield partnership and enjoyed near free reign in the derby clash at the Etihad. More is needed for the Red Devils.
Still, it could easily all have been so different. If Lady Luck had been more forgiving, United might not even be in the sticky predicament they find themselves stranded in. Anderson, Cleverley and Fletcher were in fine form during the opening stages of the season. In particular, the interplay between the Brazilian and the Englishman was a sight to behold, and at times breathtaking, with short, precise passing and intelligent one-twos prevalent. Both these players boast tremendous energy, pace and vibrancy. However Kevin Davies and Anderson’s fragile knees sidelined the two young players for large swathes of the season. They were undoubtedly missed as the sluggishness of United’s aging midfield often showed towards the end of the campaign. To cap it all, Fletcher has been ruled out indefinitely due to a bowel condition, and last season the United physios finally gave up on glass-man Owen Hargreaves. If all these midfielders were fit and well that United would arguably be set for midfield options; a mix of workers, stoppers and creators providing the perfect cocktail for a balanced and competitive core.
However, Fletcher is looking unlikely to return anytime soon, Anderson isn’t getting any fitter and Cleverley can’t save the Red Devils single handedly. The fat lady has sung a lamentable tune for the current United midfield. Options further afield must be discovered.
Of course, the customary summer rumour mill has already been churning, and has generated links with a multitude of players ranging from Cheik Tiote to the ultimate prize of Luka Modric. Yet, before setting eyes on the next prospect, it must be decided what type of player is needed. Midfielders are all unique, and each brings their different styles and various individual nuances that can drastically affect a team’s structure and dynamics.
In a world where possession kings Barcelona are hailed as one of the best club teams of all time, increased ball retention could be the way forward. Giggs and Scholes have surely only one last season left in their veteran legs, and age is beginning to catch up fast on Carrick as he enters his 31st year. Ferguson is apparently desperate to secure the services of Croatian pass-master Luka Modric, and with the Spurs midfielder apparently promised an opportunity to move from the North London club after pledging ‘one-more year’ last summer, a move could be potentially on the cards. What’s more, there is unlikely to be much competition from Chelsea, Modric’s preferred choice the previous summer.
However, as always, money is an issue. According to reports, there is a huge gap in valuations between United and Spurs. If price is a problem, which it will undoubtedly prove to be, foreign riches may be plundered, with recent noises suggesting that an approach for young Dutchman Kevin Strootman is on the agenda. Starting out as an attacking trequartista, Strootman has since reigned in part of his attacking play to become a deeper lying playmaker. Now he is a distributor, tasked with ensuring that other players can shine He can also play as a defensive midfielder, and whilst he is not a tough tackler, at 6 foot 1 Strootman isn’t short on physical stature.
Pairing either of these two prodigies with the dependable Carrick in centre midfield could provide the foundation needed to allow penetrative and tricky wingers to work their magic outside, whilst ensuring Rooney still has a platform to provide and score from his favoured second striker position.
Aiming for the two cultured ball retainers is not the only line of attack for Fergie and co. however. It would be narrow-minded to dismiss all other options, never mind the fact that glazernomics could constrain the manager’s buying power.
To the chagrin of some fans, there have been suggestions of moves for a midfield enforcer, increasing the physical presence of United’s midfield. Namely, tentative reports have suggested interest in Marouane Fellaini. There is some logic in this idea, as Yaya Toure and others have keenly exploited the lack of physicality in this generation of Red Devil central midfielders. Fellaini also offers an attacking threat at times, surging from deep to finish off attacks, or simply using his tall frame to power headers.
Another Evertonian who is constantly linked to the Manchester giants is Rodwell, who would play a similarly defensive role alongside Carrick or Scholes. More recently, Yann Mvila and Cheick Tiote have been touted as possible candidates for the defensive midfield role.
As Fergie has never really employed an out and out defensive minded midfielder, this would be an interesting change of tact from the wily Scotsman. The question on every United fans lips however is, would it work?
Evidence of global football trends seem to be pointing away from the use of an attack-limited ‘destroyer’. While they can settle in front of the back four and protect the defense, they can also handicap a team looking for goals and champagne football.
Johan Cruyff summed up the problems of defensive midfielders:
“The problem with holding midfielders is quite simple, but somehow many coaches don’t see it. The build up happens too slow – holding midfielders always need that extra touch, always need to have a look when they have the ball already. That takes time away. The opponent can position themselves to stop the killer pass and the forwards are all marked.”
With Fergie already making an attacking signing in Shinji Kagawa, it looks like he might be trying to bring flair back to Old Trafford, and thus this would suggest a move for a more attack minded midfielder such as Strootman could be on the cards rather than someone more pragmatic yet docile attacking wise.
From most points of view, it would seem that the obvious target for United should be a possession footballer, with the skills to adapt to numerous situations. Whilst Jones and Carrick can be employed to protect the back-four, there is no out and out dictator of play, other than Scholes. The Red Devils are desperately crying out for someone who can grab a game by the horns and set up waves of thundering attacks to crumble and overwhelm opposition defenders. The cries need to be answered now.
It is definitely time for Ferguson to finally make his move and find value in the market, of which there is plenty. The evidence lies in Newcastle’s dressing room. Undoubtedly, with only a few seasons left, Sir Alex will act this summer to save United’s fading midfield.