It wasn’t entirely surprising to hear Sir Alex Ferguson talk earlier this week of how the reclamation of their Premier League crown would be the main priority for Manchester United this season coming.
Lost in such dramatic circumstances on the final day of last season, Sergio Aguero’s unerring, stunning finish deep into injury time against 10-man QPR signalled a palpable power-shift, not just in Manchester but English football as a whole.
The insatiable spending power of their nouveau-riche, ‘noisy neighbours’ had irked Ferguson for some time and the season’s startling denouement will have undoubtedly cut Govan’s favourite son deep as he trudged deep into the bowels of the Stadium Of Light, a 20th League Title wrested from his grasp in the most galling of fashions.
Speculation currently abounds regarding his club’s alleged pursuit of Arsenal’s talismanic captain, Robin van Persie. Entering the final year of his contract at The Emirates, he has publicly stated that he has no intention of signing a new deal with the North London club which has in turn led to feverish, myriad claims about his next move. Rumours were rife only today that he has refused to travel with his side for their pre-season tour of Asia, perhaps in an attempt to force a move prior to the start of the new campaign. United are said to be ‘monitoring the situation’.
Sergio Aguero’s unerring, stunning finish deep into injury time against 10-man QPR signalled a palpable power-shift
Thus far, United’s sole foray into the transfer market this close-season involves the twin acquisitions of Nick Powell, a young, left-sided winger from Crewe Alexandra and Shinji Kagawa, the creative fulcrum of last season’s Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund.
Whisper it quietly but the general consensus is that the aforementioned signings and tenuous link with Van Persie focus on areas of United’s squad that are already well stocked. They possess attacking flair and guile in abundance with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia alone the envy of most top European sides. Indeed the question has been asked in many quarters: do Manchester United really need Robin Van Persie?
Both casual observers and stalwart fans alike have observed that the area in most dire need of surgery is central midfield, in particular the space directly in front of the back four.
The primary reason for this and something that became an unfortunate footnote to last season’s ultimately fruitless campaign is the loss of Darren Fletcher to a chronic bowel condition which has left him unable to train or play any meaningful part for the club.
Fletcher last played against Benfica in late November of 2011. He hasn’t featured or indeed trained since, his condition apparently leaving him listless and drained, a sad situation for such a combative player who has served United so well with his tireless running and ‘big game mentality’.
The available personnel in the current central midfield area include only Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs of any real note.
Fletcher last played against Benfica in late November of 2011. He hasn’t featured or indeed trained since, his condition apparently leaving him listless and drained
Scholes and Giggs are two of the greatest players to have graced English football but at 37 and 38 respectively they are very much in the twilight of their careers now with Scholes in fact returning from retirement last season such were United’s travails in the middle of the pitch.
In comparison to the core midfield riches of Manchester City and Chelsea especially, United are positively threadbare and it is worrying that a replacement for Fletcher is seemingly not considered a priority.
It’s true that an area once boasting the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Ince and a Scholes in his pomp is now sadly lacking and it’s certainly worth looking at those who might fit the bill as a solution to the problem:
Yann M’Vila (Rennes and France)
The French international is only 22 years old and follows in the footsteps of the likes of Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira as a clever, robust, hard-working midfield anchor. He allies his impressive physical attributes with a keen sense for the finer side of the game, offering excellent ball retention and passing ability. He currently plays for Rennes in Ligue 1 and has long been linked with a move to Arsenal although nothing has ever fully materialised. It’s been suggested he has attitude issues and is difficult to work with but it’s questionable whether that might influence Ferguson’s thoughts as someone who has long dealt with such personalities quite comfortably. He is a good age and seems a perfect fit for Manchester United; almost a like-for-like swap for Fletcher.
Cheick Tiote (Newcastle United and Ivory Coast)
Tiote is already an established, respected Premier League player, having marshalled Newcastle’s midfield with bristling panache since his move from FC Twente in the summer of 2010. He operates as a genuine holding midfielder, shielding the back four and breaking up play. He isn’t the most technically proficient of players but is certainly one of the best midfielders of that ilk in the English top tier and has been consistently tracked by the likes of Chelsea. At 26, he is a good age and would provide a perfect foil for the more cultured Carrick, Scholes and Giggs. With his huge heart and stamina he could really influence United’s play as part of a central ‘beauty and the beast’ axis with the aforementioned artisans. He does however have a seemingly worrying penchant for yellow cards and big tackles, having been booked once every other league game since his arrival at Newcastle.
Jack Rodwell (Everton and England)
Rodwell is still only 21, having made his full Everton debut at just 16. Very highly regarded both at club level and internationally, he has garnered 20 caps for the England U-21 side and is a full England international. A cultured player much like Carrick, he allies this with defensive capabilities and is believed to be coveted by those at Old Trafford as a star of the future. He plays with his head up and has real box-to-box capabilities as an accomplished ‘all round’ midfield player. The only real concern is his propensity for injury, something which has slowed his progress somewhat in recent times and raises questions over his viability as a replacement for Fletcher. He would also carry an onerous price tag, Everton don’t sell players on the cheap so he could therefore be classed as an expensive gamble.
Joao Moutinho (FC Porto and Portugal)
Moutinho is fresh from excelling at Euro 2012 as the midfield hub of a Portugal team who impressed in reaching the semi-finals and has been attracting a lot of attention because of his sparkling form and versatility. Not a traditional holding player, he likes to get forward and contribute with bustling, attacking forays coupled with incisive passing. Hugely energetic, he would dovetail nicely with United’s forward mantra and bring real verve to the midfield to complement the more measured, technical play of Carrick, Scholes et al and offer imaginative, intelligent support to the likes of Rooney, Young, Valencia and compatriot Nani. He would slot seamlessly into the side in that problematic central area and again, at just 25 would be a shrewd addition if he can be prised away from his current club, FC Porto.
Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao and Spain)
The Athletic Bilbao prodigy is still just 23 despite having racked up over 250 appearances since his debut at 17. A towering defensive midfielder, he is vastly experienced despite his tender age and perhaps offers the best overall playing solution to the Fletcher issue. He operates box-to-box and is a huge physical presence that would have no issue with the hurly-burly of the Premier League. A favourable caveat is that he can also operate at centre-half with distinction. Barcelona are said to be his main suitors in the wake of the uncertainty at Bilbao surrounding the future of Marcelo Bielsa; whether United could compete with that along with an inevitably hefty price tag remains to be seen but Martinez is a Rolls-Royce of a player whose signing would be a real statement of intent from the club.
In an ideal world Manchester United would possibly sign two players from the above list to alleviate concern and greatly improve their squad but the financial constraints on the club now and the apparent lethargy toward the midfield problem doesn’t fill fans with confidence. There is a real worry that if certain steps aren’t taken the club is risking failure once again along with the unedifying prospect of a real gap developing between themselves and their ‘noisy neighbours’.
With just a month until the start of the new season, time is of the essence. It’s true that City have been similarly quiet in the transfer market so far but they are arguably sufficiently covered already.
United fans will surely be hoping their club can spring a surprise in the coming weeks and steal somewhat of a march on their rivals.
The problem is, are they singing from the same hymn sheet? Manchester United fans will surely hope so.
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