After Manchester United compounded a bad week with a 3-1 defeat to arch-rivals Liverpool on Sunday afternoon those associated with the Old Trafford club are again forced to dissect another poor away performance and fathom where it is going wrong. Defeats to Wolverhampton Wanders, Chelsea and now Liverpool in the past month threaten United’s position. Supporters will each have their opinion of course but one argument with credence is that United is missing a player in arguably the most important position: defensive midfield.
It’s been said frequently in the past two years – United is crying out for Owen Hargreaves in games such as that at Anfield. To put it another away, a Hargreaves-type player; an enforcer, a ball winner, someone who can take the game by the ‘scruff of the neck’ and drive United forward.
Hargreaves was the player brought in to play in the ‘Keane role’ at great expense, although injuries have limited his influence. In the 2007/08 season the Canadian-born midfielder was a regular starter in games against the ‘big four’ and more significantly featured in every one of United’s Champions League knock out games including the final.
Sir Alex Ferguson obviously thinks very highly of Hargreaves and the mere fact that the United manager has stuck with the midfielder through injury for the past three years says much. In the 2008/9 season Hargreaves’ absence was not as significant as it could have been – Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo were still with United and the team continued to succeed, although United missed the enforcer in the 2009 Champions League Final in Rome.
United has missed him ever since.
Hargreaves is unlikely to return and there is now no point placing faith in a player who has been out for such a lengthy spell, and United now needs to find an alternative solution. Indeed, players of his ilk – Bryan Robson, Roy Keane – aren’t often available and there are few in the European Leagues.
Supporters are highly critical of the United squad but it is important to remember that the Reds remain top of the League because the side deserves it. United’s has not been the flowing football of the past but top is where the team aims for every season.
Moreover, United’s defence has continued to excell, with a better pair than Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic hard to find anywhere. The club also has some terrific wide and forward players. However, it is always the centre of midfield that receives the most criticism from supporters and pundits alike. The criticism is often justified, although the midfielders United possess do bring something different to the party. However, without steel in the engine room United’s creative players will always struggle to play their usual game.
United could spend heavily in the transfer market but within the club’s youth and reserve teams there is a player of this mould - Ryan Tunnicliffe. The youngster has impressed this year. He is not part of the reserves’ engine room, he is the engine room. So well has Tunnicliffe progressed that the 18-year-old midfielder has been called into the first team squad this season.
This is not to suggest Tunnicliffe is ready to run United’s midfield just yet but it is positive to realise somebody is coming through that may just fit the bill in the years to come.
Fans of Hargreaves hope for a sensational and unexpected come back but it is less likely by the day. In fact Ferguson will almost certainly fill the gap in the summer, with Hargreaves out of contract and not likely to earn a new one. The question is, where the Scot will find a suitable replacement.
In the meantime the team now has a week to recover from a damaging brace of results. United has some huge games ahead, with the return of players such as Ferdinand, Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia key. United is still marginal favourite for the Premier League title.
As for the long-term solution to the club’s ‘enforcer predicament’ – it is a key question for Ferguson to answer this summer.