“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”
Rant doesn’t often get biblical, but in a summer of tough decisions for Manchester United, it is true that success sometimes necessitates sacrifice. Trimming the fat can be the price of moving forward, making tough calls for the betterment and progression of a club. United might need to address the elephant in the room – Wayne Rooney is the hand that might need to be severed for the body to survive.
11 February 2015. Manchester United beat Burnley with a 3-1 scoreline that flattered to deceive. It was a game in which Louis van Gaal deployed his captain, Wayne Rooney in a midfield holding role. Rooney featured in 14 games in midfield last season, with the Reds’ best striker largely wasted in the centre of the pitch.
Meanwhile, United’s midfield continued to rely heavily on Michael Carrick, a player only truly appreciated in the red of Manchester. Even approaching his mid-30s Carrick offers the ‘balance’ that Van Gaal craves; without the Englishman, United looked out of sorts for large parts of the season.
And yet United splurged over £150 million last summer, leaving aside the crucial purchase of a defensive midfielder, Daley Blind notwithstanding. In keeping with his predecessors Van Gaal chose not to augment Carrick’s presence – a predicament that has lingered since Roy Keane unceremoniously left the club in 2005. In fact, until Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin joined this summer, Owen Hargreaves was the only natural replacement for the Irishman acquired in nearly 10 years.
Last season Van Gaal’s methodology in selecting a midfield pair appeared to revolve around which players would best cope with the opposition. This policy of damage control worked effectively – to a point – due to the grit and determination of Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, in particular. The pair embodied the manager’s determination to reach the Premier League top four regardless of United’s squad deficiencies.
Yet, this approach cannot continue if the title-winning days are to return to Old Trafford.
18 July 2015. United played Club America in Seattle, enjoying a 1-0 victory in the club’s first pre-season game of the 2015/16 campaign. Following the flurry of recent arrivals at Carrington anticipation for United’s return to action was high. While the Reds’ performance was far from perfect in the Pacific Northwest midfield was largely except from criticism. After all, the £40 million investment on Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin leaves Van Gaal with a midfield that can be compared to Europe’s élite; a mix of creativity and experience to be envied.
In Schneiderlin, the Reds have acquired a player who rectifies many deficiencies in midfield. The ex-Southampton man offers proven Premier League experience and excelled as the Saints finished a strong seventh last season. The French international adds much-needed steel to a midfield lacking bite, as was clear in a dominant display against Club America. In Schneiderlin’s first 45 minutes as a Red the Frenchman screened the defence well and swiftly snuffed out America attacks.
It is not just Schneiderlin’s defensive performance that impressed. Van Gaal repeatedly bemoaned United’s lack of height last season when it came to set pieces. If Schneiderlin’s towering header in the fifth minute is anything to go by there will be fewer complaints from the Dutchman this season. And with Schneiderlin’s peak years ahead of him the Frenchman could be a fixture in the United squad for seasons to come.
However strong Schneiderlin’s performance the limelight was stolen by Bastian Schweinsteiger in Seattle. The first German to play for United, Schweinsteiger’s capture may prove to be Ed Woodward’s finest piece of business. Not since Keane have United supporters enjoyed a domineering midfielder who dictates proceedings. In his first 45 minutes in a United shirt Schweinsteiger showed that he can do just that.
Primarily deployed alongside younger players in the second half, the former-Bayern Munich man brought a sense of calmness to the midfield, allowing Andreas Pereira to confidently play his own game. Not only is Schweinsteiger one of the most technically gifted players in Europe, but the World Cup winner also brings a significant amount of leadership to a United dressing room that lacked authority over the past two seasons.
While there are doubts over Schweinsteiger’s age and fitness, with the German international approaching his 31st birthday, there remains much to the midfielder’s game. Technically, the German captain will continue to improve with age, and if anyone can squeeze more from Schweinsteiger is it Van Gaal, the man who first converted the player from a winger to a holding midfield role during his time at the Allianz Arena.
Beyond the new signings the club is blessed with options in central midfield: Herrera, Fellaini, Blind, Carrick and Juan Mata. If Van Gaal, as it seems, deploys his preferred 4-3-3 system, the two new acquisitions will be a part of the midfield three. The intriguing question remains who will become the third player in the centre of the pitch.
After a tremendous first season at the club Herrera might expect to be in place to provide foil to the aptly nicknamed ‘Schmidfield’. The Spaniard brings energy and dynamism to midfield, although Van Gaal’s admiration for Carrick is clear. Indeed, the Dutchman has reassured Carrick of his importance to the team, according to Manchester Evening News, and the Englishman will remain vice-captain.
It is a reasonable position after the pivotal role Carrick played last season and the former Spurs man will almost certainly be part of the starting XI when fit. This potentially leaves Herrera and perhaps Mata with a diminished role. With Herrera proving his worth last season, and his compatriot impressing in pre-season, Van Gaal is left with a selection headache in midfield.
One player who might not provide competition in midfield is Blind, who started the games against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes in the centre of defence. He may continue to be deployed in the role for the rest of the season – Van Gaal suggested as much in his post-match press conference. Not least because of the Dutchman’s preference for a left-footed player in one of the centre back slots.
How Van Gaal solves this midfield puzzle, while keeping his clutch of stars happy, will be one of the most fascinating storylines in the coming season. The former-Ajax coach is ruthless enough to discard players who fail to meet expectations. Former protégés, Victor Valdes and Robin Van Persie offer proof enough this summer.
With United’s midfield resources now overloaded, there are many players with a point to prove. It’s a day supporters have been waiting for since the day Paul Scholes hung up his boots.
The debate continues: which midfielder was Manchester United’s Man of the Match against Hull City on Saturday? In United’s most comprehensive victory under Louis van Gaal it was the quartet of Michael Carrick, Juan Mata, Marouanne Fellaini and, especially, Ander Herrera that impressed most at Old Trafford. Indeed, far from the common observation of recent years, strength in midfield depth is now a potential asset for Van Gaal as the campaign wears on.
In yet another formation change, Van Gaal set United up in a midfield diamond, with Robin van Persie the deepest of an attacking trio that included Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria. Or, as an alternate view, the Dutchman operated at the head of a midfield quartet, with Carrick, Mata and Fellaini ask to provide protection and craft ahead of a dynamic attack.
Di Maria’s withdrawal shortly before Chris Smalling’s opener precipitated a reshuffle in United’s approach although not the overall strategy. Van Persie pushed forward alongside Rooney, while Mata dropped into the role with which he is most comfortable at 10 and substitute Herrera joined Fellaini and Carrick in midfield.
It was enforced by accident perhaps, but the tactical overhaul worked to United’s distinct advantage, creating a balance between attack and defence that Van Gaal has been seeking all season. Often without bearing real fruit.
At the base of midfield Carrick made more than 100 passes on Saturday, anchoring to outstanding effect, and linking defence with midfield in a manner rarely seen in the Geordie’s prolonged absence. The 33-year-old’s ability to effectively recycle possession comes to the fore most strongly in these kinds of matches, of course, where Carrick’s physicality is unchallenged and time on the ball is ample.
Meanwhile, Fellaini offered the kind of a driving presence that David Moyes presumably sought when the giant Belgian signed last summer. Fellaini is far from the type of technically astute midfielder that dominates European football, but performances in recent weeks have certainly picked up from a very low base.
Then there was Herrera’s mix of energy and sound technique. The former Athletic Bilbao player completed more than 90 per cent of 82 passes, while providing the assist for Van Persie to smash home United’s third goal of a productive afternoon. In an all-round performance, Herrera also completed two tackles, two interceptions and made a defensive clearance during one of Hull’s rare breaks forward.
“I have to say Herrera came in and did fantastic, I was very pleased with how he did,” Van Gaal told MUTV. “He is a very fit player which is why I also let him play in the Reserves. I’m very happy for him because he needed a good performance.”
The 25-year-old has been out of Van Gaal’s side in recent weeks, suffering first from a broken rib and then Fellani’s improved form, but he offers a genuine balance in midfield that others do not.
“Of course I want to play as does every player, but I am at Manchester United where there are a lot of good players,” admitted Herrera in the aftermath. “I am a lucky guy to be here and I have to see these moments as a challenge.”
Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing performance came from Mata, the Spaniard who has not always enjoyed life under Van Gaal. Operating at 10, Mata successfully completed almost 80 per cent of his passes in the final third – 90 per cent overall – offering a creative heartbeat more subtle than Rooney’s bombastic style in a similar role.
Crucially, perhaps, Rooney’s improved form over the past five matches for club and country has coincided with a return to a more forward position that takes advantage of the Scouser’s enduring goalscoring instincts. In this Mata has a crucial role to play, releasing Rooney while offering a balance of touch and creative passing.
It is the aggregate midfield display that will please Van Gaal most though. United’s dominance against Steve Bruce’s meager outfit was built on absolute superiority in the centre of the park. Where lesser sides have taken advantage of a lightweight offering over the past 18 months, Van Gaal’s quartet seemingly outnumbered the five, on paper at least, Bruce strung out across midfield.
“I was very pleased with our dominance in the whole game and also with our positional game,” the Dutchman added. “We scored three goals, created more chances, and we didn’t give any chances away – that’s very good.”
Yet, the performance leaves Van Gaal with decisions to make ahead of United’s fixtures with Stoke City on Tuesday and then Southampton and Liverpool in the coming weeks.
Neither Mata nor Herrera have been guaranteed a starting role this season; both earned praise against Hull. Meanwhile, Van Persie’s superbly taken goal should keep the Dutchman in the side despite Radamel Falcao’s return to fitness. With Rooney an untouchable figure in Van Gaal’s team, it is the Spanish duo that are most at risk should Falcao start any of the upcoming three matches over the next fortnight.
Against the need to find room for Van Persie, Rooney and Falcao in the side, United’s veteran coach will also be mindful of that elusive search for balance. It is one that will become yet more complicated when Di Maria returns from the minor hamstring injury suffered against the Tigers.
Either way Van Gaal now enjoys a range of midfield options not available to Moyes last season nor, perhaps, to Sir Alex Ferguson in the Scotsman’s final campaign as United manager. While Darren Fletcher is unlikely to ever regain his former dynamism, and Anderson is simply running down the clock on a disastrous eight years at Old Trafford, the Reds are at least be competitive in midfield once again. Daley Blind’s return in the new year will add to Van Gaal’s options.
Then there is the future. United remains some way behind England’s very best this season, although the recent improvement in midfield performances is one step towards bridging that gap, of course. In a European context, with the Reds desperate to return to next season’s Champions League, the Dutchman’s squad may still be one world class midfielder short. It is a gap that the club will probably seek to fill next summer.
Until then United’s supporters will enjoy a long overdue improvement in midfield performances.
It was, in truth, not the cleanest of goals. Juventus’ number six spun onto his left foot to strike home the Old Lady’s first in a 4-0 Supercopa victory over Lazio a fortnight ago. Paul Pogba’s opener, struck low past Federico Marchetti, was the latest stepping stone in a career that has reached a new level since a £250,000 move from Manchester United a little over 12 months ago.
United lost a potential world star and the Reds continue to search Europe for a high-quality midfielder to augment David Moyes’ squad.
Indeed, Pogba’s rise is such that is comes as no surprise that Real Madrid enquired about the Lagny-sur-Marne-born midfielder this summer. Juventus director general Giuseppe Marotta rebuffed any talk of Pogba moving on, although the gossip pages put a mooted fee in the £40 million region. The rise from United reserve team to the world stage is almost complete.
Still, if United’s spectacular mishandling of Pogba’s career – the lack of first team appearances and a low-balled contract offer – during three years in Manchester is now an expensive failure, then the club is making a belated move to fill the hole. Indeed, the summer long United has chased the signature of a top class midfielder – to embarrassingly little success.
While an attempt to bring in Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcántara was hugely unrealistic, United has moved on to more obtainable targets in recent days, with the transfer window now closing in hours rather than weeks.
Yet it was with some surprise that the club finally made good on a long-standing interest in Atletic Bilbao’s midfielder Ander Herrera on Friday – the Reds’ failed bid reportedly amounting to €30 million. United will likely have to activate the player’s €36 million contract release clause to bring Herrara to Old Trafford.
The 24-year-old Basque is tidy in possession, and keen in the tackle, marking the former Real Zaragoza player as a hybrid of those already sought by David Moyes this window. Herrera is neither classic playmaker in Alcántara’s mould, nor goalscoring creator à la Fabregas, nor indeed does he possess the physical presence of Mouranne Fellaini.
It is little wonder that United fans cannot discern a transfer strategy amid the myriad bids rejected this summer, with no two players seemingly alike. It is a scatterngun policy that may only bear fruit in the final moments of the window.
Herrera is yet to make his full international debut, making the deal overpriced but a key turning point in the player’s career. Champions League football and a high profile transfer may help Herrera ease his way into a Spain squad that boasts midfield riches including Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Santi Cazorla, Isco, and Fàbregas.
Yet, while United continues to blunder around the market Ed Woodward and Moyes may have struck lucky with Herrera, who will not be sold for less than his release clause, but is available nonetheless. United must either increase the bid for the former Spanish under-21 international or pull out defeated by the market once again.
“Our club is different, in that it is based on feeling,” said Bilbao president Josu Urrutia on Friday.
“Our objective is not to make money. We received the offer last night, and we communicated that we do not negotiate for our players. If a player is to leave, first he has to inform us that he wants to go and then his release clause has to be met.”
Those of a more curious bent may ponder the club’s failure pursue a similar strategy of activating Fellaini’s release clause before it expired in mid-July, with the Reds now set to pay more than the £23.5 million stipulated in the Belgian’s contract. While Everton has thus far been intransigent – rejecting joint bids of £28 and £36 million for Fellaini and left-back Leighton Baines – most observers expect a deal for the Belgian to go through before Monday.
Meanwhile, United’s late attempt to capture three central midfielders before the 2 September deadline reportedly includes Roma’s experienced Italian international Daniele Di Rossi, once the subject of significant interest from Manchester City.
Roma might have considered an offer this summer except for being light on numbers following the departures of Erik Lamela, Pablo Osvaldo, and Bojan Krkic, together with Simone Perrotta’s retirement.
However, the 30-year-old was always unlikely to sanction move, having publicly committed both to club and his family in Rome – a fact that supporters with an internet connection and Google translate presumably knew well ahead of Woodward and company. Plus ça change this summer it seems.
More unlikely still is a move for Real Madrid’s Kaká, despite paper talk over the weekend. The Brazilian is finally ready to leave Los Merengues in search of more football in a World Cup year. Former club Milan remain interested in the 31-year-old, although the player’s €10 million per season wages and Madrid’s desire to see a return on the €56 million transfer fee is a significant roadblock. The same is very much true of a mooted, but far-fetched, move to Manchester.
None of the deals are yet sealed of course, leaving Moyes to fall back on Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Anderson for United’s trip to Anfield on Sunday. Not that Brendon Rodgers can boast any greater depth of resources in central midfield.
Moyes may look on developments at White Hart Lane with greater envy though. Friday’s £11 million deal for Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen followed the £8 million acquisition of Étienne Capoue and £17 million Brazilian Paulinho. Add Mousa Dembélé, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Lewis Holtby into the mix and Spurs’ boss Andre Villas-Boas boasts six full international central midfielders at his disposal.
Which leaves fans all the more frustrated that the club was unable to tie Pogba down to a new contract 12 months ago. The Frenchman blamed Sir Alex Ferguson’s refusal to grant the teenager more time in the first team; the Scot attributed cause to Pogba’s agent. Both stories contain an element of truth.
In the meantime Moyes has until 11pm om Monday to fill the void.
It appears that Manchester United has some money to throw around this summer, with revenues from Anderson, Luis Nani and Wayne Rooney potentially bolstering a healthy transfer fund. While Rooney is still likely to be sold, for a sizeable fee too, the loss of United’s number 10 is not as disastrous as some media outlets and fans make it out to be. However, the case of Anderson and Nani is a bit more complex.
Nani has often disappointed but the Reds’ first team is so thin with wingers that Nani must be kept if only to allow David Moyes to rotate his wide men. Wilfried Zaha has excelled in preseason games but he remains untested in the top division and Champions League. Nani is the one player in the squad who has the skills and agility to consistently beat a man and should stay unless United can capture someone who offers the same qualities before the window closes.
While Rooney’s physical deterioration greatly hampers the former Everton player’s influence on the field, the same criticism applies to Anderson. The Brazilian’s rather unprofessional approach to life must be condemned but, again, there so few central midfielders in the first team picture that Anderson should be retained at the club.
Sir Alex Ferguson often spoke about the dangers of bringing in too many players at once. It is a lesson David Moyes might heed. Although the new man has not had the time to fully stamp his authority on the squad, having replaced much of the backroom staff, it would be rational to be careful about making additions to the playing staff too.
Moyes typically emphasises width and even though United’s wingers are limited at best, Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra are excellent attacking full-backs and will mask the shortcomings of the players ahead of them.
The real problem area for Moyes is central midfield – an area with little depth.
Acquiring a player or two will solve that problem but the fact that Michael Carrick, who is very important linking midfield with wingers and forwards, has no understudy is problematic. Rooney shouldered much of the ball-winning burden last season, and someone who can compete physically in central midfield should be considered if Rooney goes.
Phil Jones can be deployed in midfield, of course, but the youngster simply does not possess the game intelligence to play as a midfielder at the highest level.
The chase for Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara and Cesc Fàbregas offers more insight into Moyes’ plan. Each clumsily handled at best and at worst plain unrealistic. The Spanish duo are excellent passers who can fulfill Carrick’s deep lying playmaker role if needed. Crucially, though, each can effectively carry the ball forward, make key passes while posing a goal threat.
Neither offers much physicality though – and with Carrick likely to cement his place as one of two in 4-2-3-1 it is rather unconventional to field two passers in central midfield and then deploy Shinji Kagawa, a very technical player, ahead of them.
However, Kagawa’s presence does allow Moyes to field three passers. Kagawa is a player who likes to come into possession facing forward and plays quick, incisive balls to the team’s strikers. Robin van Persie and Javier Hernández are excellent finishers and United’s opposition will be forced to keep an eye out for the Japanese’s creativity.
Should Moyes use the former Borussia Dortmund player as Jürgen Klopp did at the German club by fielding two very capable passers deep United’s opposition will face a dilemma as to how to stop the Reds’ midfield. Man-mark Kagawa and two central midfielders will run the game. Compete in midfield and Kagawa will roam free. Meanwhile, Fàbregas (or a player of his ilk) can storm forward and overload the hole between the midfield and defence.
The Moyes model, should it come to fruition, insists upon the team setting up deep and forcing opposition into choosing between letting United’s midfield run the game or risk succumbing to clinical counter-attacks launched through Kagawa.
It is, however, a complex and intricate plan that often fails.
Sound in theory, nobody yet knows whether Moyes’ plan will actually work. It seemingly revolves using Kagawa as a bluff to force the opposition into defending the hole. It is a reactive plan, based on a supposition that United’s opponents will attack – a strategy that fails when the opposition parks the bus, leaving the attacking side to retain meaningless possession.
Fàbregas is perhaps the only player who can make this plan work. The Spanish can score from distance and the Barcelona player, perhaps influenced by the English game, is so direct that more cultured teams such as the Catalan club and Spanish national team often use him as a forward.
Cesc has the attributes to break down teams that sit deep and is experienced in doing so as a former Arsenal player. There are few others who can pass incisively, carry the ball forward, shoot from distance and storm into the box if needed.
Moyes’ plan is bust of course with Fàbregas now committed to remaining in Barcelona, but the brazenly public wooing of the Spanish duo suggests that the new United manager will continue the counter-attacking approach adopted during his Everton days.
It is risky though. While Ferguson’s approach became increasingly defensive during the latter days of his tenure, Moyes does not possess the retired manager’s trophy haul. United’s fans might not take kindly to the reactive tactics.
Indeed, the new man’s desperation seeps through in the frantic quest to bring in the one player who could have very well been the difference between Moyes’ approach being described as boring or refined.
Severe famine, disease, and bloody struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines brought a conjugation of disastrous events to medieval Italy. The earliest black death epidemics swept the north, while crop failure spawned a Flagellist movement out of a tenebrious epoque. It was a dark time, in a dark place.
Hope came in the public mortification of the flesh – a community of early Franciscans, led in spirit by St Anthony of Padua, seeking redemption in pain, preaching flagellation as a penance. Ask forgiveness of God, and He might look upon the sinner more favourably.
One wonders whether Manchester United’s public humiliation in the transfer market this summer is born of a similar wish to clean the soul. After all, so much of it is self-inflicted; and all public in it’s genuine indignity.
Certainly, there must now be a sense of desperation in the offices of Ed Woodward and David Moyes, with just four weeks until the transfer window closes and the febrile masses ready to condemn should the pair fall back on the excuses of the past. There may be little value in the market this summer, but United’s rivals at home and abroad care little of it.
It has been a summer of few positives at Old Trafford; one in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement catalysed tumult in the boot room and a change in the club’s most senior executive.
But it is in the transfer market where United’s strategy, or lack of it, has been laid bare. Incompetence? Perhaps. Insouciance? Sadly, it seems so. Groundwork? Apparently, none.
Indeed, it is hard to recall a more calamitous window – not, at least, since Peter Kenyon graced Old Trafford’s boardroom by offering Juventus just £8 million for Zinedine Zidane. Kenyon topped it by refusing to raise United’s bid for Ronaldinho a penny above £18 million.
Kenyon followed up by making public Barcelona’s £35 million bid for David Beckham only for the midfielder to choose Real Madrid in the most opprobrious fashion.
This summer has been worse though. Much worse.
First, the supremly gifted Brazilian-Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcântara very publicly turned down a move to Manchester, choosing instead to join mentor Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
Few could blame the youngster for choosing the European champions, albeit a club with such wealth in midfield that Thiago may struggle to get a game in Bavaria. Even so, retrospect affords clarity – and United’s interest, however solid, represents one of the most pointlessly futile moves in the market in recent years.
Having failed to heed the lesson United faxed over the club’s first official bid for Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas a mere 24 hours after his colleague’s departure to Germany was confirmed. As timing goes, United is no Tommy Cooper, although the farce still runs deep.
Deterred not by the predictably swift rejection of a £26 million opening bid, Woodward has overseen two further offers in £5 million increments, each rebuffed by the Catalan giants with increasing chagrin. And who can blame them?
“They have also understood our stance that we don’t want to sell him,” said Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta on Monday. “They have given up.”
On past evidence one wonders whether the message will reach Woodward’s desk.
The frustration resides not only in Spain, but north west England too, where United supporters have observed events with increasing embarrassment. The club, once famed for fastidious attention to professional detail during David Gill’s era as chief executive, has looked little short of amateur over the past three months.
Indeed, supporters’ disquiet at Woodward’s bumbling is magnified by the club’s apparent oblivion to clear noises emanating from both player and Catalan camps. After all, Fàbregas’ former manager Arsene Wenger has proffered more than once that the midfielder will remain in Catalonia at least one more season.
It takes not an insider to read between the lines: Fàbregas is happy to use United’s interest to strengthen his own position in with the Culés.
The Reds incompetence is not limited to incoming transfers though. That the club has mishandled the Wayne Rooney saga a summer long proves as much.
Quite remarkably United has maneuvered an increasingly political situation to the point where the player’s position is all but untenable. And yet with clubs a continent wide spending heavily on the few genuinely classy strikers available there is only one bidder, Chelsea, at the table. This for the preeminent English talent of the past decade.
Moyes is left in the unenviable position of retaining a striker who has little intention of playing for United again, or strengthening a major title rival. José Mourinho is surely laughing into a glass of Madeira tonight, even as Woodward rejected Chelsea’s second bid for the striker.
If only it ends there.
Elsewhere serial underperformers seem likely to remain with the club – Nani, Anderson and Bébé each joined United’s Monday afternoon flight to Stockholm for the club’s penultimate pre-season friendly. The £45 million spent on the trio is unlikely to ever bare a return on investment.
Rooney did not board, however, with a mysterious shoulder injury cited as reason for pulling the 27-year-old out of United’s fixture against AIK in the Swedish captain. It is an excuse even the player’s family will be pushed to believe.
Most disturbingly there seems little in the way of contingency for Rooney’s departure. Certainly, eyes fluttered in Robert Lewandowski’s direction will do little good – the Pole is almost certain to join Bayern Munich a year hence. Perhaps a cheeky bid for Victor Anichebe is in order.
This is a familiar tale of course. Rejected by Fàbregas and Alcântara, United will find no success delivering a bid for the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modrić, for example. Not with the Real in no mood to sell.
It leaves United looking at the only sure bet left: Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s is a limited talent that few supporters wanted to see in Red just a few weeks ago. Needs may now must.
Unsurprisingly, United’s ill-planning shines through once more, with the Belgian’s £23.5 million release clause lapsing on 31 July; the transfer could now cost United significantly more, proving that old misogynist adage that if you have to go ugly, go early.
It’s enough to drive fans to madness; or at least the self-abasing whip.
Cristiano Ronaldo arguably scored his greatest goal for Manchester United against Porto in 2009. It was a fantastic strike from forty yards out, but Ronaldo’s movement must not be overlooked; the forward had made the ‘false nine’ role his own during that season, dropping off the front to find the space and time needed to line up that shot.
Anderson, however, was credited with an assist for making a five-yard lateral pass to the Portuguese. There really is no way of differentiating a ‘good’ assist from a ‘bad’ assist from a statistical point of view. Beauty in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Spurred on by Michael Lewis’ excellent Moneyball, just about every club of note, in all sports, now boasts a data analysis department, and analysts differ wildly on how they evaluate players and tactics.
Statistics can be beguiling. Wayne Rooney, for example, has enjoyed two exemplary seasons in terms of goals and assists, but his performances have been subpar at best. Take Paul Scholes in recent seasons – he epitomises imagination and creativity in his passing, but his assist statistic is dwarfed by Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
So in judging Tom Cleverley, should one look beyond the meager five assists and two goals he has managed since his introduction to the Manchester United first team in 2011? After all, he has mainly been deployed deep in central midfield where opportunities for killer balls and shots are limited. Although Michael Carrick, who plays deeper still, has racked up five assists and two goals in each of past two seasons.
In the 23-year-old’s Cleverley’s defense Carrick played a lot more often. Still, it is hard to picture Cleverley in the first team. While his stamina and work-rate are commendable, the Basingstoke-born player’s injury proneness is notorious. His height and muscularity offer little in the way of physical strength and he is not particularly quick.
In fact, Cleverley’s lack of speed greatly limits his potential on the wings. He simply doesn’t have the pace to succeed as a traditional winger in the mold of Antonio Valencia. Yet, he has been used on the left by Sir Alex Ferguson and at Wigan and Watford as an inverted winger.
During the two seasons in which Cleverley was deployed in wide roles he managed a goal per roughly ten shots – in line with Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia’s record. It begs a question, with stamina, a great tactical mind and willingness to work hard, could Cleverley can become another Ji-sung Park?
Given Cleverley’s ability on the ball, he also remains a decent option on the wings as an inverted winger directly attacking the defenders or, like Ryan Giggs, used to retain possession.Yet, with reinforcements likely this summer it is hard to see Cleverley breaking into the first team on the flanks.
Indeed, Cleverley’s ability on the ball is excellent. Schooled by Rene Meulensteen, he controls the ball well in tight quarters and engages in high tempo short passing game. This has placed him at the tip of the England national team midfield. The Englishman perhaps lacks incision in the traditional number 10, vis-à-vis penetrative through balls, but makes up for it by setting up one-twos. Crucially, he quickens the pace of the game.
David Moyes had emphasised quick transition during his time at Everton. Quick transition, as practiced by Real Madrid and Dortmund, is essentially long-ball football played on the ground. The Scot, who set up his Everton teams to concentrate playing in the opposition half, might greatly appreciate Tom Cleverley if it wasn’t for Shinji Kagawa’s presence in the United squad.
At Dortmund, Kagawa was often excused from all defensive duties and allowed to concentrate on sniffing out spaces to launch counterattacks. Jurgen Klopp, unlike Ferguson, had the Japanese run onto the ball – at United, the players pass the ball into Kagawa’s feet. With the ball in front of him, Kagawa just needs to apply the final touch. When the ball is coming to his feet, Kagawa has to twist and turn before making his move.
Kagawa epitomises quick transition football as practiced by Dortmund and there is every chance that Moyes will see the Japanese as key should the incoming United manager decide to continue with his football philosophy. This means that Cleverley will not be claiming the central attacking midfield spot as his own.
Moyes is also fanatical about width. Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra are excellent attacking full-backs and there is every chance that the former Everton manager will allow them to push forward and overload the flanks.
But with two attacking full-backs, United’s central midfield will be set up more defensively. Rafael Benitez, who probably knows more about 4-2-3-1 than any other manager on the planet, argues that with “offensive full-backs, you have to find that right balance. [You need two holding midfielders].”
There is very little point in deploying Cleverley as a defensive midfielder for the Englishman is all about movement and tempo. With Carrick there to provide quick, incisive balls to the wingers and full-backs, Cleverley will be redundant.
In the past season Rooney has shouldered a lot of ball winning responsibilities and allowed Ferguson to field two passers in the middle. Should Rooney leave the club, and Kagawa offered an important role, United will need a genuine defensive player in midfield to partner Carrick.
With the squad set up more or less for 4-2-3-1, Moyes will probably ‘go with the flow’ and make just minor changes to the football philosophy. After all, it’s foolhardy to impose something totally different on a successful squad used to doing things a certain way.
This is bad news for Cleverley. His versatility is admirable, but ultimately he is a jack of all trades rather than a bona fide master of any. Barring drastic changes on Moyes’ part, Cleverley will not cement a first team place next season.
There is a certain romance about Manchester United’s play this season; an innocent we’ll-score-one-more-than you attitude that is a refreshing change from the stifled tactics of so much modern football. Yet, United’s plethora of attacking talent has been forced to work at its maximum simply because Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have defended so poorly. The Reds may be top goalscorers in the Premier League this season, but there is a vulnerability that is likely to prove costly against the nation’s finer teams.
Indeed, not only has Ferguson’s team defended with sometimes comic ineptitude this season, but United has picked up an unfortunate habit of conceding early goals. The Reds have now fallen behind in eight of 12 matches this season – a run that has included two Premier League defeats, with more surely to come unless Ferguson can right a listing ship.
Just four points behind Chelsea domestically, and a point away from qualification for the knock out stages in Europe, there is little, superficially at least, for Ferguson to fret over. Yet, United’s 70-year-old manager will appreciate as well as any just how destructive poor defending is likely to be in fixtures to come this season, not least the Reds’ visit to Stamford Bridge this Sunday.
The greatest worry, however, is that short of reigning in United’s attacking instincts, Ferguson can do little more with the resource at his disposal. It is a weakness that threatens to undermine the club’s season.
“I can’t understand our defending. It’s been the story of our season,” admitted Ferguson after United beat SC Braga at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
“Starting badly and losing goals and fighting back to rescue games. It’s the front players who are doing that for us. Some of our football was terrific, some fantastic football. We created a lot of chances. But it is a concern we are losing goals.
“I can’t get to the bottom of it. If you analyse all the goals we are losing, they are all different types, a cross and then a cutback and players free in the box. It is difficult to put my finger on it. We are certainly not getting good starts to games, that’s for sure. We will sort it, I am sure of that.”
Ferguson’s problems start in the engine room where no combination of the half-dozen central midfielders at the club is able to provide the kind protection a fragmented back-four desperately requires. True, injuries have occurred with little respite, with Nemanja Vidić, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones still out, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans have also missed game in the campaign. But United’s trouble runs deeper.
The only constant may be change in United’s back-four, yet there are problems of Ferguson’s own making too. Indeed, Braga’s early double at Old Trafford this week owed much to the manager’s baffling decision to deploy Michael Carrick at centre-half. The 30-year-old Geordie may have fine defensive instincts, but that does not always make a defender of the highest quality. This much has become obvious in the dozen or so games Carrick has played in the centre of defence over the past three years; a truism Ferguson oddly denies.
“I think we did the right thing,” adds Ferguson
“It wasn’t Michael Carrick’s fault for the first goal. He did his job well. You have to look at the big picture, Rio at his age, with a big game against Chelsea on Sunday, Chelsea on the Wednesday, Arsenal Saturday. We have a massive programme and it is important to utilise the squad. OK, at the moment with Vidić out and Jones and Smalling not available then putting Michael back there is not the best, but he did his job well.”
This is an observation reserve defenders Scott Wootton and Michael Keane will ponder, although the point is moot if Ferguson has no faith in the young pair against one of the Europe’s weaker opponents.
More serious, though, is that question of tactical balance in a side that will surely be stumped by the next opponent that can defend with solidity and break at genuine speed. It has left Ferdinand in particular exposed at times, not least in recent matches at Old Trafford against Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City.
In midfield Carrick’s defensive instincts in the holding role offer much, but when deployed alongside 37-year-old Paul Scholes the former Spurs player is forced to cover far too much ground for comfort. Meanwhile, neither Tom Cleverley nor Anderson offer the requisite protection, and Darren Fletcher is only just returning to full fitness. Far too often has United been open to the simplest of counter-attacks.
The genuine concern, of course, is that no combination will solve the problem in central midfield, and United’s defence will continue to suffer as a result. This is an argument bolstered by Ferguson himself, who has deployed a narrow midfield diamond in recent matches at CFR Cluj and Newcastle United in an attempt to offer a little more solidity.
This is a tactical shake-up that may not have blunted the side’s goalscoring, but certainly ensures Rooney, Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa are deployed outside their best positions.
It is easy to proffer that Ferguson would countenance no such tactical shenanigans if, for example, he was able to deploy Scholes and Roy Keane in their pomp. This is an observation that leads to an obvious conclusion – the real debate is less about tactics and injuries than it is about personnel – and begs a tougher question – why has United stocked up on attacking talent, ignoring once again the imbalance in the squad?
“We can’t keep doing that,” admitted Rooney after United conceded two sloppy goals against Stoke. “If we want to be successful this season, we can’t keep doing that.”
It is a rejoinder that might apply to more than one aspect of United’s defending this season.
Picture the scene: a massacre of x-rated horror. Certainly not one for the kids; not on a Sunday tea time at least. But this was not some far-flung war-torn land ignored by the west, but Manchester United’s defensive shape, seemingly disregarded by Sir Alex Ferguson. It was brutally exposed by newly promoted Southampton at St Mary’s on Sunday, and oh-so-nearly cost United a second defeat of the campaign.
After all, there have been plenty warnings. Everton bullied United’s back four at Goodison on the opening day of the season, while Fulham should have scored more than an Old Trafford double last month. That is to say nothing of the four the Toffees scored at the back end of last season in a tragi-comic end to the campaign.
Yet, at St Mary’s the old frailties recurred, with both full-backs caught out of position too often, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić looked far from the tried-and-trust partnership of old.
True, injuries have disrupted United’s preparations and consistency. Patrice Evra aside, each of Ferguson’s first team defenders has spent time in the physio suite over the past year. Ferguson’s side started the campaign missing four central defenders in Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ferdinand. Few squads could cope with that level of disruption, let alone record two victories the opening three matches of the campaign.
Yet, it’s an analysis that misses the underlying point, and downplays the structural problems in Ferguson’s side. Defensive numbers are plentiful at Old Trafford, but after a summer of more generous than usual transfer spend, the question of squad balance still rears its ugly head.
On the south coast the Reds suffered not only for mistakes in defence – Southampton ruthlessly exploited defensive weaknesses at full-back – but a genuine lack of cover through central midfield. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, ever neat in possession, were unable to prevent the newly promoted outfit breaking forward in numbers. All too often Ferguson’s side aided Nigel Adkins’ side by committing up to seven players forward, while leaving gaping holes in the rear-guard.
In this there is no surprise that captain Vidić offered an honest assessment of United’ defensive performance after conceding twice on Sunday. Yet, with five goals against already this season, it is an admission that only tells half the story of the Reds’ troubles.
“It was a difficult game and we conceded two goals we’re not happy with at all,” Vidić told MUTV.
“We’ve been told before the game what Southampton’s strengths are, what their game is and what they’re trying to achieve. In the end, they did it so it’s disappointing. I have to say, we are not really pleased with the goals we’ve conceded. There was a lack of concentration, I think, for all four goals we lost [in the last two games] but we have to work on it.
“You have to say we’ve had a lot of turbulence in defence with so many changes and people going in and going out. We didn’t have a constant back four and sometimes it causes a problem, but we look forward to the next games. We have over a week to improve our fitness and obviously our form so we are going to be right for the next game in the Premier League.”
Yet, there is also a question of balance. Those jokes about Ferguson perfecting a new formation – the doughnut – ring true. That, somehow, United’s team has the perfect shape, but nothing in the centre. Judging by the Reds’ defensive concentration this season fans might have cause to wonder whether the joke goes far enough, although after Sunday the premise certainly holds.
And with Vidić now fit, Ferdinand restored, and Evans on the way back, Ferguson has more cover in defence than for some time. Jones, now in full training, and Smalling will provide more cover in the weeks ahead. None of the returnees can ensure United’s midfield offers sufficient cover; nor the Reds’ shape enough protection.
One critical, but perhaps realistic assessment, is that United’s 70-year-old manager has gambled, in recruiting Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa this summer, that more goals will paper over weaknesses in midfield. Particularly the defensive and physical side of United’s engine room that is too frequently exploited to be ignored.
It’s a bet that is already placing significant faith in van Persie’s ability to maintain the goal-a-game start to his United career. On Sunday the Dutchman’s hat-trick secured a last-gasp victory; van Persie won’t always be able to repeat that trick.
In this it is hard to be critical – United fans want attacking football, played in the very finest traditions of the 134-year-old club. All too often in recent years style has been subservient to substance, while neither flourished last season. The sight of Kagawa flitting in between attack and midfield dictating play, and van Persie ruthlessly finishing chances, is one supporters will surely enjoy this season.
Yet, in moving to a progressive formation, and a more attacking philosophy, there is also some irony. After all captain Vidić began the season by demanding United seeks points in precedent to entertainment.
“Sometimes the main thing is to play for three points, not just to enjoy games,” admitted the giant Serbian in August.
“We want to play great football but we want three points and we want the title. I think this year we understand that. But when you don’t win the title, the next year is the one where you think ‘I have to push more, I have to work harder, I have to do better than last year.’”
Hard work alone will not help Ferguson’s men strike the right balance between flooding forward in search of goals, and keeping the ship water-tight. Defensive shape – and midfield personnel – will have just as significant say in the title race this season.
The real question is whether the returning injured can ameliorate the defensive mistakes of the past month. If not, then much as supporters found after last season’s humiliating defeat to City at Old Trafford, Ferguson is likely to eschew attacking prowess in favour of more defensive stability.
Manchester United has suffered a December horribilis, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side dumped out of the Champions League, Nemanja Vidić ruled out for nine months after a shocking triple knee ligament injury, and now Darren Fletcher laid-low with a serious long-term bowel disease. While the European loss robs United of glory, and revenue, player absentees ensure Ferguson’s side is weaker for the Premier League season.
Fletcher’s absence means that Ferguson is down to just two fit senior central midfielders, with wingers, defenders and strikers expected to fill the void before Anderson and Tom Cleverley return at some point in 2012. Meanwhile, the loss of captain Vidić leaves United’s manager with Rio Ferdinand as his only experienced central defender. But should the United manager enter the transfer market in the coming window?