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Disecting The Manchester United Midfield

Keane and ScholesThe midfield has been an area that has been under intense scrutiny from supporters, pundits and anyone else who has an opinion on football. From the success of the Keane – Scholes partnership to the disappointment of the Carrick – Fellani partnership,  in this post I will try my best to analyse the Manchester United midfield. I will discuss how over the years the Manchester United midfield has changed and why we suffer from the problems we suffer from now

Roy Keane and Paul Scholes

Over the years Manchester United has been blessed to have the opportunity to field some great midfield partnerships. However undoubtedly the greatest midfield pairing Manchester United have played in the Premiership era is one involving Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Together they lead Manchester United through one of their most successful periods in their illustrious history.

Roy Keane a fiery Irishman and Paul Scholes, a shy Englishman. They were on paper a mismatch but on the field they complemented each other like nothing else.

Keane was the CDM, he was forever nipping at the heels of the opponent and his no non-sense attitude to the game was shown through his robust challenges. He was often accused of wanting to injure players, such robust were his challenges. His endless energy and love for the club were, I think epitomized in the 1999 Champions League Semi-Final when Manchester United faced a Juventus side that could boast of Zidane and Deschamps in their midfield. With two quick fire goals from Filippo Inzaghi Manchester United’s treble dream looked to be in tatters. With Keane picking up a booking that would keep him out of the final, were United to pull off a miracle, it was meant to be a nightmare game. However being the man he was, Keane refused to give up and lead the revival himself by scoring a captains goal in the 24th minute. It was a night to remember in Turin as even the hostile Juventus fans applauded Keane’s performance. They recognised that his passion and desire to win was truly unparalleled. United went on to complete their famous treble after an equally memorable against Bayern Munich.

Paul Scholes on the other hand, who incidentally also missed the final due to suspension was an altogether different player. He started off his career as a striker and has been heading back ever since. In his early career he found his place, as a No.10 playing off the striker. Not blessed with sensational pace Scholes played the game on his terms.

His reading of the game and his ability to spot a pass half a second before any one else made up for his lack of speed. His goal scoring from midfield came through him ghosting into the opposition area or some truly fantastic shots from outside the box.  As he took a step back again, he found himself in the center of the park, in the midfield engine room. His ability to read the game was now even more prevalent and so was his sublime passing. No one, Gerrard included can hit a long cross field pass like Scholes. The way he spots the pass before any one else on the pitch and than the way he executes is just artistry. His range of passing is one of the most complete I have seen. Widely regarded as the best midfield of his generation Paul Scholes was a one-off and he alongside Keane formed the best partnership of the Premiership era.

Their success came from the complete package they offered. Keane was the all action ‘box to box’ midfielder who covered every single blade of grass. On the other hand Scholes was the artist, he set the tempo of the game from the very first minute and dictated it to the very last. When Keane was forced out of the club a gaping void was left in the middle of the park, one that still remains.

Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes

Carrick and ScholesWhen Michael Carrick was brought in from Spurs many fans thought he was the replacement for Keane. The fact is Carrick and Keane are two completely different players. How they are different is something we are all aware off. What was more interesting though was that Carrick’s arrival signaled a change in the Manchester United midfield structure. Previously we played with a pivot, like Keane and a deep lying play maker, like Scholes. The pivot would put in the challenges and allow the play maker time and space to run and dictate the game.

Now with Carrick we played a double pivot. Each midfielder would take turns to go forward and crowd the opposition half. The other midfielder would sit in front of the back four and make challenges and recycle possession. The role is quite similar to what Gerrard does for Liverpool. He plays a holding role in front of the back four. This allows the midfielder in front of him to make runs in the attacking half.

However unfortunately for Manchester United, the change of system did not work very successfully. Both midfielder were essentially deep lying play makers who controlled the tempo of the game. They were best utilised in that position. Both Carrick and Scholes had a fantastic passage range and a fantastic understanding of the game. However neither could consistently be lethal in the final third, they lacked pace in the midfield engine room. This resulted in there being huge gaps between the front 4 (strikers/wingers) and the midfield. This gap is what other teams could easily exploit.

Manchester United thus relied on spraying passes all around the pitch to make up for link-up between midfield and attacking midfield. To link-up play Tom Cleverley was often used. He is very energetic and was pivotal in linking up the midfield and front four. He made up for the lack of mobility in United’s engine room and filled the gap between the four forwards and the midfield.

The demise of Cleverley from the dynamic and energetic youngster that once was such a bright spark to the tamed player he is now is quite sad. He has the qualities to be a great player but a huge lack of confidence and injuries have resulted in a huge regression of his game. To add dynamism and mobility as well as physical presence to the Manchester United Marouane Fellani was purchased.

 Fellani and Carrick

Fellaini and CarrickThe partnership, in theory is meant to replicate the Keane and Scholes partnership, however on the pitch it is simply a shadow. On paper it looks great as Carrick can play the ‘Scholes’ role of the deep lying play maker who sits in front of the defense. Many expect this to be Fellaini however Carrick is arguably more defensively astute than Fellaini. This is because in modern football the reading of the game can be defensively more important than putting in the hard challenges, although that is essential. Having a ‘better‘ football brain allows players to make more interceptions which kill attacks. The English International was one of the highest interceptors in the league last season and continues to be this season as well.

Fellaini on the other hand is in theory meant to play the ‘Keane‘ role to an extent. He with his aggression and physicality is meant to add the bite to the Manchester United that we have lacked. Last season no other player committed more fouls than Fellaini so in theory this partnership should work like a dream. He should play in front of Carrick and be the more attacking of the two midfielders.

However there is own fatal flaw in this partnership and that is Lack Of Mobility. Ever since Keane left Manchester United have struggled to find a player who can put in the hard yards, make the challenges and be a physical presence, consistently. Players like Anderson and Cleverley have done this job in short bursts however neither have done it consistently.

Fellaini might be able to match Keane physically however he is far too slow and gets caught in possession far too often. This results in Carrick having to make up for him. As a result Carrick finds it harder to impose himself on games due to a lack of space and time on the ball. Yet the English International maintains one of the highest pass accuracies in the league despite having to make up for Fellaini’s short comings.

The Solution

William CarvalhoWhile we may struggle to find a player who has the aggression and the love for the club that Keane has we can still try our very best to find a suitable  replacement. We need a Central Midfield, not a no.10 who is a true ‘box to box’ player. Players that have endless energy, attacking nous as well as a sturdy challenge.  In an ideal world I would sign William Carvalho in a heart beat.

The 21 year Angolan born beast (there is no other word for it) is set to be a world beater. I think that he can fill our void in Midfield left by Keane. Like Keane he is very strong and has a great physical presence. In fact it is nearly impossible to knock the 6″2 off the ball. Like Keane he also has a crunching challenge, which many bruised opponents will embarrassingly testify to.

However one of my favourtie qualities is his positioning. Like all great players he seems to have more time on the ball than most, despite playing as a holding midfielder. This is because he has an intelligent football brain and knows where the space is. You might think at his point he sounds like a Fellaini. While the Belgian and him do share some physical similarities the Sporting Lisbon player has a key asset that sets him apart.

It might be hard to believe specially considering he is 14 stone, but he is quick, very quick. Many do not appreciate this quality because they don’t see it often enough and that is down to his fantastic positioning. This would certainly add a lot of mobility to our sluggish midfield and would rejuvenate Carrick.

Despite his great qualities Catvalho is still way ward in his passing and often opts for the sideways pass. However as a 21 year old and playing alongside one of the greatest passers in the Premiership in Carrick he will definitely improve and in his time be ready to fill the boots of Roy Keane.


That about sums it up for this time and I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know what you think in the comments below. I would love to hear your suggestions and feedback.

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Rafae Qazi

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