In the past few weeks, despite Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertions to the contrary, it has become obvious that the club simply does not posses a central midfield pairing worth talking about. Despite the early pace set by youngsters Tom Cleverley and Anderson, United has few central midfield options that can challenge domestic rivals, let alone those of Barcelona. This is especially true since the pair’s lengthy injury absence took hold.
In contrast to Cleverley’s performances during the late summer, the growing dissatisfaction with Michael Carrick continues around Old Trafford. Although the Geordie’s performance against Swansea City 10 days ago was an improvement, it was a ‘needle in a hay-stack’ full of dismal showings. Carrick’s lack of pace and dynamism, and his predictability, remains a source of frustration for many followers of the club.
Indeed, even the once revered ‘Scottish player’, Darren Fletcher, has begun to bear the brunt of some criticism for his lack of guile and, at times, poor passing. Despite the Scot’s enduring endeavour, Fletcher has never been the most proficient player technically. Too often this has been apparent over the last two years. One can attribute Fletcher’s muted displays to a prolonged period on the sidelines, but what is now clear is that there is little more to come from the player that fans have not already seen. Fletcher’s game is no longer improving rapidly, and worse, his form has begun to stagnate.
Anderson and Cleverley started brightly this season; the pair was simply magnificent during August and early September. Cleverley was a breath of fresh air, while Anderson had seemingly found a partner who could bring out the best in the Brazilian. Since then both players have picked up long-term injuries. To many, Cleverley’s absence until Christmas could be the downfall of United’s trophy ambitions this season.
It is rare that a player is missed so much at United. Rarer still that this is true of Cleverley while he remains a rookie. After all, when Cristiano Ronaldo left the club, United survived. Ditto Cantona and a host of other stars. Yet, without the young Englishman’s presence, the Reds have seemingly very few options of quality.
Some say that Ryan Giggs return from injury could be the team’s saviour, but for many that sentiment is a sad reality for a club of United’s stature. Reliance on a 37-year-old veteran, who can barely manage two games in a week, to be the creative driving force says much.
Then there is youth, perhaps the only stone left unturned by Ferguson in the search for the right midfield balance. The Scot has forever championed the use of youngsters, yet Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison remain reserve team players at best. To many supporters the situation is increasingly frustrating, with Morrison displaying more creativity against Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup last month than many of United’s regular central midfielders have done in years.
The much-troubled midfielder has been hailed by pundits as the best in a generation, yet is still waiting in the wings for an opportunity. Granted it is still early for Morrison to be thrust into action against the very best, but it is less obvious why the 18-year-old has not yet been utilised in games against ‘lesser’ sides this season.
Likewise, the highly rated Frenchman Pogba is under-used. Indeed, the teenager is reportedly considering his options due to a lack of first-team football after three years at the club. And where the French under-19 international might see the stadium lights at Arsenal once in a while, his chances remain few and far between at Old Trafford.
What chance, then, that the pair might start against Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup this week? While Ferguson name-checked both midfielders on Monday, the Scot has tended to use the tournament to offer fringe players some game time. After all, many predicted that Morrison and Pogba would start against both Leeds United and Aldershot in earlier rounds. They did not.
“Ravel Morrison was in the squad for Wednesday’s game [against Benfica]. He’s a very, very talented boy, of course, and he’ll possibly be on the bench, at least, in midweek,” said Ferguson.
“But I’ve got other players needing a game like Mame Biram Diouf and Federico Macheda. Chris Smalling has come back and I may be able to play him on Wednesday. He’s still young and it’ll be a young squad against Palace. The only area where I’ve got problems is centre midfield. It’s possible I could play Pogba in there but we’ll wait and see. I’ve got enough players to choose from, that’s for sure.”
“I think the League Cup has turned into quite a good tournament. Clubs like United are able to introduce young players and ones who have not been playing regularly in the first team and it’s been good to us over the years. We’ve won two finals at Wembley with young players, which is good going, and I think it’s become an important tournament for us in terms of getting the youngsters an introduction into winning and having an understanding of the progress they’re making.”
The issue is hot topic for many critics. The failure to sign Wesley Sneijder, or another leading midfield name, was always going to be Ferguson’s shortcoming this season. And while this may be true, if there are no players available at a price the club is willing to spend, then somebody else must be offered the chance. Yet, for many fans the sight, for example, of Ji-sung Park chasing shadows in the centre of midfield, or Wayne Rooney’s immense talent wasted as a defensive midfielder, is beyond frustrating.
It is clear that Cleverley has the potential to be one of the world’s best players in the years to come. The player’s handful of games for the club has already demonstrated all the qualities that Ferguson needs, even if the youngster has too often been injured in his short career. But as Cleverley’s rise illustrates, sometimes Ferguson simply must take a chance on the players at his disposal. Certain youngsters will hope the Scot heeds the advice this week.