While much of the recent talk about Manchester United has lain with a creaking defence, after a disappointing performance against Norwich question marks are once again placed over the quality of their midfield.
A common sight this season has been Sir Alex Ferguson’s men slipping behind only for them to conjure up a miraculous comeback in the dying moments courtesy of unrelenting waves of attacking pressure. Take the 3-2 defeat of Southampton for example: a sluggish start, coupled with poor defending put United on the back foot, before the introduction of Paul Scholes provided the creative spark that fuelled the turnaround. Despite Robin van Persie’s hat-trick, the Dutchman placed a large portion of the responsibility for the win around Scholes’ neck, lauding the 37-year-old for his impact. However, with the veteran midfielder providing the only genuine creativity, there were hints beginning to surface that the United midfield was not as strong as it should be.
Against Norwich, Giggs started the game alongside Michael Carrick. Despite a phenomenally successful career, the legendary Welshman doesn’t quite have the impact he used to command. For the past few seasons Giggs has drifted on the periphery, and against the top teams his age has become increasingly more apparent. Why then, with Champions League knockout qualification all wrapped up, did Ferguson deem it prudent to deploy Giggs for the weekend Premier League fixture? A game that required a win far more than the midweek match against Galatasaray.
The problem Ferguson has is that he doesn’t really have an infallible midfield pairing. With the additions of van Persie and Kagawa bloating the already considerable attacking talents at Old Trafford, Ferguson has tinkered with formations – 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2. Cleverley, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs and Anderson have all come in and out of the team, and as of yet, no combination of the aforementioned players has performed well enough for them to be considered definite starters.
With the loss to Norwich and Manchester City’s earlier mauling of Aston Villa, Manchester United slipped off the Premier League summit. More worryingly are the breakdown of statistics: City remain unbeaten, while United have already lost three of their opening 11 games. In spite of victories over Chelsea and Arsenal, it would be a very blinkered fan to suggest United haven’t had their fair share of good fortune. Sure, the forwards aren’t exactly finding goals hard to come by, but a lack of consistency at the back, married with a midfield that has failed to impose itself on too many occasions makes for disquieting times.
With Carrick partnering Giggs, even against Norwich – though take nothing away from the Canaries, they worked hard, closed down and were difficult to penetrate – United were bereft of creativity; they were dull, lacked incision and were too bland. A club of such stature shouldn’t have to rely so heavily on the talents of Scholes, one of its oldest squad members, and a player who by all rights should be slowly winding down his career (again). Unfortunately for Ferguson, there isn’t a lot within his squad to suggest this problem can be addressed and corrected quickly.
Darren Fletcher’s illness has cruelly robbed him of a well-earned first-team berth, for the hard-working Scotsman is a player who can really make a difference in the centre of the park. While not a creator, Fletcher has that indefatigable determination to snuff out every hint of danger and United sure miss him. Michael Carrick while good, is rarely great. He has the odd game where he stands out, particularly against Chelsea, but too often he goes unnoticed. Occupying that innocuous role between ruthless ball-winner and genuine playmaker, Carrick fails to have a game-changing impact on too many occasions. Giggs and Scholes can’t – and shouldn’t be expected to – manage the tempo of the modern game at their ages, especially for a prolonged run of games. Talk in some circles has turned to Anderson being given the opportunity to step in and make his mark, but this has been a ‘mark’ that he’s failed to make in six seasons with the club. Despite showing a refreshing vigour and industry in his opening year, the Brazilian has since gone on to accrue a reputation for being a sluggish player with a lack of incision and a startling ability to nearly always make the wrong decision when in possession of the ball.
The one positive aspect of United’s centre midfield this season has been the continuing emergence of Tom Cleverley, and although the young starlet has shown signs of maturing, he isn’t quite the full package yet. He needs to add goals to his game and become a little more adventurous; he’s comfortable on the ball, a very good passer and has great special awareness, all he needs is to unshackle himself a little.
There is the suggestion that Kagawa can be utilised in centre midfield, but the Japan international’s waifish frame does not quite lend itself to the hurly burly physical nature of the Premier League. However, with this theory there is the compromise that the former Borussia Dortmund star would fit excellently into the diamond system – a formation that has benefited United well on the occasions they have used it this season. The only problem? The bottom ‘point’ of the diamond, the holding midfielder is absent from the Red Devils’ squad. A player in the mould of Daniele De Rossi, Javi Martinez, Javier Mascherano, Scott Parker would more than suffice; someone unafraid to impose their will on the game, someone unafraid to chase, tackle, harry, but someone who also knows when to sit and shield that leaky United defence.
When United conquered the league and made a successful assault on the Champions League between 2006 and 2009 they had a firm central midfield that hinged largely on Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher. In the legendary treble-winning side that dominated the late 90s, Keane and Scholes were ably backed up by Nicky Butt. Now, Ferguson doesn’t seem to know who deserves to command the centre of the park. The return of Vidic could seriously help plug that hole at the back, while van Persie, Rooney and Hernandez will continue to score goals amongst them, but a great team needs a strong spine, and without a sturdy midfield, the current United side appears to be missing a few vertebrae.