Tag Midfield

Tag Midfield

It’s the midfield, stupid II

December 8, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 63 comments

When Bill Clinton successfully beat George H. W. Bush senior to the White House in 1992, the former Governor of Arkansas did so seemingly against the odds. The end of the Cold War, and conflict in Iraq, ensured foreign policy dominated the headlines at a time of intense national pride. But in assessing the contest, Clinton’s chief strategist James Carville correctly determined that it was not the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that would determine the November 1992 election, but the dollar in ordinary Americans’ pocket.

It was, to paraphrase the sign hanging on Clinton’s Little Rock campaign office, the economy, stupid, that would send the Arkansan to office. Clinton’s win, barely a year after Bush had received 90 per cent approval ratings in the polls, was gained on a more nuanced understanding of Americans’ needs than his predecessor could ever muster.

Six weeks after Manchester United’s humiliation in the derby, one wonders whether the club, like Bush, is on the precipice of acceding to a superior force. In Europe, given the result against FC Basel on Wednesday night, United already has.

In the period since City scored six at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has seemingly become ever more recalcitrant, stubbornly grinding out single goal victories – domestically at least. In the face of an ever-growing injury list, with the side’s rhythm broken by recurring absentees, United’s ability to win ‘when playing poorly’ is – as the old cliché goes – the stuff of champions. Points gained now could well have a significant impact come May, even in the darkness of the ‘morning after the night before’.

Yet, United’s performances since 23 October have been mired in the kind of sparkle-less midfield performance that – aside from a short period at the current campaign’s start – has become increasingly the norm. A new emphasis on midfield structure, built around the admirable Michael Carrick, and not the injured Tom Cleverley’s pass-and-move creativity, has replaced the free-flowing football played in August and early September. In truth those memories are now long gone; August an exception that proves the rule.

This observation is not new – supporters and pundits alike have complained of a glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad for years. Paul Scholes, ageing and increasingly pushed to the margins, always needed replacing. Roy Keane and Owen Hargreaves are long gone. Ferguson’s midfield is, even for the most optimistic Reds, at least two high-class players short.

Increasingly, Ferguson has taken to experimentation in search of a solution. Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung have each been deployed in central midfield in recent games. The position is unnatural to all of them.

And so to Wednesday, when United crashed and burned at St Jackob-Park, and Ferguson’s side was sent packing into the ignominy of the Europa League. In midfield Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones made up the odd-couple central midfield.

The Scot’s outfit did almost everything bar score the required goals, but in truth most supporters will have seen this coming. And in assessing the devastating loss, thoughts necessarily turn inwards, for this has been a failure of the club’s own making.

“It is embarrassing to be in the Europa League,” defender Patrice Evra said succinctly.

“I play for Manchester United to be in the Champions League. It’s a catastrophe. We feel very sad but we deserve to go out. “It’s a big disappointment. Since I played with Monaco, I’ve never been out in the first round. We played with fire. Against Basel at home we were winning 2-0 and we drew against Benfica as well. It’s not about tonight, it’s about the competition. We threw away that qualification. We should have woken up earlier in this competition.

“It feels like a dream. I feel I will wake up tomorrow and we will have qualified. But it is not a dream, it is the reality. Even if it is a friendly, when I pull on a United shirt I do my best to win that trophy. I play for Manchester United to play in the Champions League but some players dream of playing for United in any competition and you have to respect that.”

The question now is not whether the “embarrassment” will provoke a “response,” as Ferguson put it post match – supporters can expect no less – but specifically what that might be. For surely the United manager cannot believe his side did not try hard enough, or has more to give? Many supporters will argue that the response, if there is to be one, must come in the market to address the structural problems in the Scot’s squad.

It is worrying, then, that the Glazer family is unwilling to release funds this winter for midfield reinforcements, if the word on the street, currently doing the rounds, is to be believed. It is a truism that United was interested in Internazionale’s midfielder Wesley Sneijder in the past summer, only for the deal to flounder on the Dutchman’s substantial wages. Any move for Luka Modric was ended at the conceptual stage once the Croatian’s fee was established at more than £30 million on the open market.

Across town City acquired Samir Nasri at great expense from Arsenal, adding to the exceptional talents already at Eastlands, including this season’s best player, David Silva. That City’s vast array of midfield talents contrasts so starkly with Ferguson’s meagre resources is all the more disappointing for Reds keen to stave off the rising Blue Moon. To underline City’s riches, Nasri, also a target for Ferguson in the summer, has spent much of the campaign held in reserve by Roberto Mancini.

City’s midfield quartet of Yaya Touré, James Milner, Gareth Barry, and Silva, ran rings round United at Old Trafford. Just as, one might add, Barcelona had at Wembley in May. Anderson and Darren Fletcher failed against City, just as Carrick and Giggs succumbed to the Catalans six months earlier. Benfica and Basel have demonstrated that even clubs supposedly one tier down can more than match United. One wonders how many lessons it is going to take?

How much criticism is reserved for Ferguson, who dragged his limited squad to a glorious 19th domestic title last May, depends on how far you believe he is culpable for the marked decline in his midfield resources. One version paints Ferguson as the visionary, transforming his squad through vibrant youth, and investing in Cleverley as United’s next great playmaker. An alternate casts the Scot as the Glazer family’s lickspittle; a carpetbagger’s lackey, beholden to owners that are unwilling to invest in the club’s playing resources unless costs are cut elsewhere.

Which brings us back to Clinton. In ’92 the American people, who should have been emboldened by the Cold War’s end, and impassioned with militaristic pride at the successful conflict in the Persian Gulf, instead threw out the old regime and invested in the promise of a bright young southern lawyer. Ferguson is unlikely to cast aside the dead wood in his midfield, but it is, to borrow a now hackneyed phrase, the midfield, stupid, that will ultimately end United’s quest for 20 – as it has in Europe – unless something changes. And fast.

Time to take a chance

November 28, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 22 comments

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.

One nil to United

November 20, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments

There have been times in Sir Alex Ferguson’s management of Manchester United over the past 25 years that the Scot’s side has been forced ‘back to basics’; when the necessity to grind out results overcomes the need to entertain. Think back to United’s campaign in 1996, for example, when Ferguson’s side chased down Newcastle United with seven single goal victories in the league post New Year. That the Scot’s outfit had lost 4-1 to Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day underlined the gritty nature of the club’s campaign during the run-in.

Few of those times have come so early in the new season though, with United’s 1-0 victory at Swansea City on Saturday the third such result since Manchester City’s heavy victory at Old Trafford in October. Indeed, five clean sheets in a row since that derby day loss point to a renewed determination to grind out results through defensive security. In truth, Ferguson’s side has rarely, in that period, played the brand of attractive attacking football that is expected by Old Trafford regulars.

Not that any criticism of United’s style will bother Ferguson while his team is maintaining clean sheets and winning games. Keeping in touch with rivals City at the top of the Premier League is the priority, and United are doing that. Just about. Whether fans will accept the change in approach is another matter altogether.

“Keeping clean sheets has been an integral part of our success and we have been careless with our defending,” admitted Ferguson after United’s win in Wales.

“A few weeks ago there was genuine criticism about the defending and the chances opponents were getting. Swansea didn’t really make any chances apart from the miss they had in the first half. It was a solid performance and we never looked like losing the game. We were comfortable and had good possession. And when you win these games 1-0 it brings the concentration back to a good level which has been lacking. The concentration we showed today is exactly the concentration we need back in the team.

“We’ve tightened things up and there were some good performances by our defenders. And Michael Carrick was outstanding. I thought he did really well – it was a big performance from him. To get Michael back to that form and have the likes of Ryan [Giggs] available gives us good options. We also brought on Fabio, Fletcher and Valencia which shows you the strength of the squad – they were good changes at important times in the game.

“The squad we’ve got now is strong and I can make changes with confidence and that’s very important at this stage of the season.”

At the other end of the pitch United rarely sparkled in Wales this weekend, with Wayne Rooney again dropping deep as United sought to compete in midfield with a fluid Swansea team. And while Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of Michael Carrick it says much for the Scot’s options that the Geordie was the only natural central midfielder chosen in a team that contained three wingers.

When Ferguson needs discipline he turns to Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung. And while the Korean ostensibly started wide-left, with Giggs partnering Carrick in the middle, United was never going to be outfought in the centre ground. ‘They shall not pass’ has become a mantra these past four weeks, and Park provided an additional defensive shield when required.

Yet, with Javier Hernández in the side, even a far-from-fluid United retains a threat if Ferguson’s side can create enough chances. Indeed, the Scot’s outfit created few chances at the Liberty Stadium, but the Mexican’s goal was taken with the kind of ease that has become familiar, even if it took a momentary lapse of concentration from Swansea right-back Angel Rangel to gift United an 11th minute lead.

“We’ve gone back to basics and defended really well since City,” Giggs told MUTV.

“It wasn’t just the goals against City, it was also the chances that were being created against us in the other games. Our opponents were getting too many chances and our new goalkeeper David De Gea was having far too many shots to save. Solidity is something we have always prided ourselves on, at the back and throughout the team really.

“Swansea played some great football against us and kept the ball well, but they didn’t really hurt us. It was a tough game for our midfielders and forwards but at the back we defended well and they didn’t have many chances. When Chicharito’s on the pitch, you know that if you put a ball in a certain area, you know he’s going to be there and more often than not he’s going to put it away.”

The challenge for United now is to turn results into performances, with City winning not only frequently, but with genuine style this season. Roberto Mancini’s men have now dropped just two points in the Premier League, scoring 42 goals in the process. That’s 13 more than United in the same number of fixtures.

Yet, it has certainly been an easier task for United to tighten up at the back post-derby, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic both fit and restored the centre of Ferguson’s defence, than achieving a more fluid is could be. After all, while United has the attacking talent to match almost any in Europe, experience has shown that sacrificing central midfield solidity – read numbers – for attacking fluidity results in the opposition creating more chances.

“You always want to score more goals, of course, but I don’t think it’s a concern,” adds Carrick.

“It’s about winning games and it’s a good sign that we can win games like that. We haven’t been at our best but there’ll be a point in the season when everything will come easily. We’ll score some more goals because of the talent in our team. We believe we can do that, but at this time it is about grafting, sticking together and showing a lot of character.

“We are happy, we weren’t at our best but three points is nice. The football wasn’t as fluent or easy on the eye as it could have been but 1-0 is a win and we’ll take that. At this stage of the season it is about picking up points and wins – judge where we are by Christmas and we’ll kick on from there.”

It’s a message that supporters want to believe: that United can combine both the attacking football of the late summer, with the defensive nous of the past month. Yet, with Ferguson still reliant on numbers to compete in central midfield, it is a goal to be achieved in hope, rather than expectation. For the time being United fans must accept winning football that is not necessarily achieved the ‘United way’.

Fergie lauds teen Pogba as Reds future but what of the present?

August 14, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 58 comments

Manchester United’s failure to land a central midfielder this summer is with scepticism in many quarters, with the club’s inability to meet the wage demands of Wesley Sneijder and Samir Nasri pointing many critics towards a charge of Glazernomics. Yet, while United’s poor record the road last season was almost entirely down to a paucity of options in central midfield, manager Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen not to acquire new talent for the role this summer.

Far from meeting the challenge of Barcelona’s dominance in Europe, and Manchester City’s lavish spending domestically, some pundits believe that United may well have run simply to stand still this summer. Indeed, while Ashley Young offers a new flexible attacking option, David de Gea and Phil Jones are new-for-old replacements in Ferguson’s squad. The question of whether United is ‘net better’ from this summer’s transfer activity is yet to be answered.

Yet the 69-year-old Scot believes – critics might add he has little choice – that emerging youngsters can fill the void left by Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves this summer. Tom Cleverley’s positive 45 minute display against City in the Community Shield offers reason for supporter optimism. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Frenchman Paul Pogba is singled out by Ferguson as a real hope not only for the future but the coming season as well.

“We’re quite positive about him,” Ferguson said.

“If we hold Paul Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract is finished. We have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”

That athletic frame has drawn comparisons with Patric Vieira, a lazy analogy born seemingly of players’ similar French-African roots and height. Indeed, those who have watched Pogba’s progress in United’s FA Youth Cup winning side last season witnessed a player of significant finesse, quick feet and attacking prowess. The comparison with former Arsenal midfielder Vieira is one that Ferguson rightly rejects.

“He could be a surprise for us. I took him to the charity game in Monaco and he played 25 minutes in the second half against Marseille’s first team and he did very well. He got involved right away and I said to myself, he’s not bad,” added Ferguson.

“He’s a big physical boy. He has a great physique, 6ft 2in, athletic. The new Patrick Vieira? That’s just because of his height and build. Patrick was a great player but this boy is only 18. Look at Patrick when he was 18, he was playing centre half for Cannes. He only emerged as a midfield player at AC Milan.

“But I believe Pogba has the equipment to be successful. Seeing youngsters like him come through helps me, it helps us all. It’s still one of my biggest thrills to see a youngster coming up through the ranks. The kids are the foundation of the club. I think the foundations are looking good at the moment. This helps to drive me.”

Yet there is much work to be done if Ferguson is to fast-track Pogba into the first team picture. Despite his potential Pogba would surely struggle in the Premier League’s more physical encounters. Meanwhile, Ferguson believes that the former Le Harve midfielder must develop a greater range of passing if he is to make it to the very top.

“You don’t want to be putting the lad under pressure yet, but he’s got all the equipment all right,” added the United boss.

“He’s strong and athletic and he’s almost ready to be considered. We are just trying to work on his distribution. He has been playing a short passing game and we think he could do with a bit more range. We will be giving him opportunities this season because if you don’t use good players you end up losing them. We can’t hold him back, and wouldn’t want to do anyway.”

Along with United’s other great midfield talent in the FA Youth Cup winning side, Ravel Morrison, Pogba can expect games in the Carling and FA Cups in the coming season. Ferguson is almost certain to pick fringe sides in the early rounds of both competitions, with United entering the Carling Cup at the third round stage in September.

Morrison, meanwhile, is unlikely to be fast-tracked into the first team picture until the youngster’s many off-the-field distractions have cleared. The club’s willingness to protect the 18-year-old Wythenshawe-born player, despite multiple court appearances over the past 18 months, says much for the talent on offer; arguably the most fluid English central midfielder with the ball at his feet since Paul Gascoigne.

In Morrison, Pogba, Cleverley and perhaps Anderson – if the €30 million Brazilian can ever find some consistency – Ferguson has built with the future very much in mind. The players represent an exciting quartet of midfield talent very much in the United tradition.

Yet, for all that future promise the feeling that United has sacrificed short-term progress at the Glazer’s financial altar is inescapable. Despite Barcelona’s utter destruction of the Reds’ midfield at Wembley in May the Catalan club has acquired in Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez two talents of the highest order. That – Nani aside – no United midfielder would make Barca’s squad, let alone first team, is telling.

Poll: Is United ‘net better’ than last season?

August 13, 2011 Tags: , , Polls 30 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson claims that Manchester United’s business in the transfer market is concluded for another summer. Having overseen a busy transfer window, Ferguson insists that United will now focus on youth, with bids for Arsenal’s Samir Nasri and Internazionale midfielder Wesley Sneijder shelved. Indeed, the 69-year-old Scot says that United’s central midfield future lies in Tom Cleverley and Paul Pogba’s hands.

“When you take that roll call of players, I’m certainly not looking to add to that. I’ve been saying that for weeks but you [the media] have all been writing differently – that I’m going to buy this one or that one. But we’ve said nothing, we just carry on with our business. You can forget [Sneijder] I’m happy with the young players I’ve got.

“We’re quite positive about [Pogba]. If we hold Paul Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract is finished. We have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”

Ferguson’s faith in youth comes despite bids for both Nasri and Sneijder this summer; the former having agreed to join Manchester City, and the latter unwilling to take a pay cut to join United. Meanwhile, Ferguson left 18-year-old Pogba with the reserves while United toured the States this summer.

The question, with Ferguson now declaring business finished for the summer and no central midfielder signed, is whether United is ‘net better’ than last season?

Is United 'net better' than last season?

View Results

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David de Gea
Phil Jones
Ashley Young
(Tom Cleverley from loan)
(Danny Welbeck from loan)

Edwin van der Sar
Paul Scholes
Owen Hargreaves
John O’Shea
Wes Brown
Darron Gibson (probable)
Thomas Kuszazck (probable)

Fergie calls time on spending

July 26, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 96 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson claims that Manchester United is unlikely to spend again this close season but it is the 69-year-old manager’s assertion that this summer’s retirements have financed the club’s spending that will raise eyebrows. While United’s Cristiano Ronaldo-sized cash pile has finally enabled Ferguson to loosen a vice-like grip on the Glazers’ cheque book, it is seemingly the requirement to reign in spending on wages that may limit the Scot’s transfer market ambitions.

Indeed, as has become the parlance in recent times the “Ronaldo money is there,” with the Scot giving the green-light to spend heavily on Wesley Sneijder this summer but unable to afford the Dutchman’s admittedly astronomical wages. Plus ça change critics might add, with United still investing in promise rather than fulfilled talent under the Glazer regime, despite the squad requirements this summer.

“We lost five players in their 30s this summer,” said Ferguson in New York last night, ahead of United’s fixture with MLS All Stars at the Red Bull Arena.

“That helped finance the three younger players – Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea – I have brought to the club. At this moment, I can’t see another addition. The type of player we might have been looking for is not available. I am happy with the players I have got at this moment in time.”

Ferguson’s comments are a less than oblique reference to Luka Modric, Samir Nasri and Sneijder, each of whom has piqued the Scot’s interest. But with Tottenham Hotspur steadfastly refusing to sell the Croatian and Nasri more-than-likely joining Manchester City on a Bosman next summer, Ferguson’s options in a narrow field are now limited.

Yet the failure to secure Sneijder is disturbing. The Dutchman will remain at Internazionale for the foreseeable future after neatly slotting into a central midfield role in Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-4-3 system during pre-season. Note to United supporters who doubted it: the Sneijder is, and has always been, tactically flexible enough to flourish in the deeper role identified for him at Old Trafford.

Financially speaking the aborted deal for Sneijder once again brings into question United’s muscle in the Glazer era. By far the world’s most profitable club – at least in EBITDA terms – with the third largest revenue on the planet, United could not close out the deal despite Inter’s willingness – read requirement – to sell and Sneijder’s openness to a move.

After all, Inter is more than £100 million behind United in annual revenues with a highly under-commercialised structure that requires the club to balance the books before UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) initiative kicks in.

What then of United’s prospects in the coming season, with Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs making up Ferguson’s limited options in central midfield. Each has a serious question mark about his quality and ability to perform.

After all Carrick’s improved performance last season may yet be the exception to prove a rule in an otherwise undistinguished three-season period. Anderson has offered glimpses of talent in an otherwise highly disappointing four-year spell at Old Trafford, while Fletcher cannot shake a serious virus that undermined the Scot’s last campaign. Giggs, the mainstay of United’s central midfield creativity towards the back-end of last season, is 38 in November.

Quibbles over quality aside when it comes to raw numbers Ferguson has fewer options in central midfield for the coming campaign than last.

Despite this United will begin the new season as favourites to retain the Premier League title. Chelsea’s dynamic new coach and Manchester City’s wealth notwithstanding, none of United’s domestic rivals is stronger. New midfielder or not, the nine-point gap at the head of the table  told of United’s ability to endure a long domestic and European campaign.

Yet there is a real debate about whether the club is any stronger for the coming season even if Ferguson has laid the seeds for long-term success. David de Gea  is an outstanding young goalkeeper under immense pressure during his first campaign at the club. Phil Jones will offer solid defensive back-up but less flexibility than Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Meanwhile, Ashley Young must perform from the start to convince many United supporters that the 26-year-0ld is the solution to closing the gap on Barcelona in European terms.

Indeed, in Europe’s premier competition it is hard to see United bettering last season’s performance, in which a spot in the final exceeded many expectations. The humiliating loss to Barcelona at Wembley, insisted Ferguson, was a challenge United would rise too. The Scot’s assertion that no new midfielder will join his ranks has surely negated the promise before a competitive ball has been kicked.

Not that the answer to all United’s challenges lies in the transfer market of course but just occasionally established talent is required amid the club’s policy of buying for the future. In this most pundits and supporters agree that United’s central midfield options are far more limited that even Ferguson must be comfortable with, despite the Scot’s assertion to the contrary.

Of course it  could be a ruse by the wily Scot, who has never been slow to offer the media a smokescreen or two. But with chief executive David Gill joining Ferguson’s party in New York this week it is safe to assume that there is no new signing on the immediate horizon.

Whether any future acquisition is of the quality United supporters hope for is seemingly very much down to economics.

Carrick’s midfield mission impossible

July 19, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 92 comments

With Manchester United’s bid for Wesley Sneijder seemingly run aground on the financial rocks Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted this week that the Reds may not bring in a direct replacement for Paul Scholes. With United’s sights aimed high, Ferguson told press gathered on the club’s US tour that only the very best will do for United. Not for the first time this summer supporters’ hopes that a high-class central midfielder will arrive at Old Trafford may have been dashed.

On a similar track, midfielder Michael Carrick believes that replacing Scholes is a shared responsibility among the players that remain at Old Trafford. It is, of course, an impossible task and not simply because in Anderson, Carrick and Darren Fletcher United does not possess the requisite quality to replace Scholes. Moreover, numbers are down after Scholes’ retirement, Owen Hargreaves’ release and Darron Gibson’s impending sale.

“I think losing a player like Paul is a big loss – he brings so much to the team,” admitted Carrick.

“He’s a world-class player. Scholesy was just brilliant – how he played the game, how he was off the pitch. He was loved by everyone. None of the lads have a bad word for him. He came in, did the business and then headed off again. He had genius ability that you can’t really teach.

“You have to compensate in other ways. We’ve done that in the past – we lost Cristiano Ronaldo a few years ago and people didn’t think we’d get over it. Different players step up – maybe not one player but we share the responsibility. I feel there’s more responsibility as you get older, too. Experience counts for a lot. I just want to improve again and have a good season.”

Nice words of course but essentially empty. After all history indicates that Carrick, while improving over the past 12 months, will remain passive in the face of the highest competition. The Geordie’s qualities are many – and still admired at Old Trafford – but Scholes’ replacement he is not.

Meanwhile, Anderson, of whom many supporters retain high hopes, has achieved little of note in four years at the club. Aged just 22 the Brazilian is arguably far from his peak; yet years into a disappointing career in England to boot. The man Ferguson identified as Scholes’ heir apparent is arguably fortunate to remain at the and benefiting from Ferguson’s considerable patience with players he believes may come good.

Then there is Fletcher, whose 2010/11 campaign was spoilt by a mystery virus that effectively ended the Scot’s season 12 matches early. That the Scotland captain is not fit enough to join United on tour says much, leaving Ferguson with just two recognised central midfielders in the States plus 38-year-old Ryan Giggs.

Yet the United manager has once again sought to cool talk of Dutchman Sneijder joining the club this summer, with Internazionale reportedly asking for £35 million and the player seeking wages over £200,000 per week. The impasse leaves United looking at alternatives, with the club now dismissing the notion that Samir Nasri will join after Arsenal simply ignored a £20 million bid.

“Forget it. We are looking at some things but I am not so sure Sneijder will be easy to get,” Ferguson said.

“I could pick three or four players to come in but they wouldn’t be good enough for us so there is no point. I would be happy enough [with no new signings]. Maybe I am a bit overloaded in the strikers’ positions. The alternatives in midfield are not nearly as strong. But I have a good squad.”

It is pointed then that Ferguson chose to praise young Tom Cleverley as “an intelligent modern-day footballer,” with the 21-year-old joining the United squad, along with Danny Welbeck, at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon this week.

“Welbeck’s an England international, an exceptional talent. Cleverley will play for England. His movement and understanding of space is really good for a young player. We are happy both of them will stay with us. Because of the experience they have had, keeping them now benefits us.”

Although Stuart Pearce used Cleverley  mainly in wide positions for England Under-21 team this summer – as did Wigan Athletic last season – many believe that the youngster has the natural talent to compete centrally. It is clearly a huge ask for the Basingstoke-born midfielder, who scored four in 25 appearances for the Latics, to step into Scholes’ shoes with immediate effect.

Could the answer to Ferguson’s dilemma lie elsewhere? Certainly United’s failure to add proven quality in central midfield has led many – supporters included – to speculate that Wayne Rooney could drop even deeper in the coming season, away from the ‘number 10’ position occupied to such great effect over the past six months. It’s a notion dismissed by Ferguson, who admirers the Scouser’s on-the-field intelligence but is unlikely to deploy the former Evertonian in a more limiting central midfield role.

“Wayne could play centre-midfield, but not the way that Scholesy played it. They’re too different,” added the 69-year-old United boss.

“The way Wayne would play as opposed to Scholesy is that he would be more dynamic and all over the place, using his energy to run everywhere, challenge and hit those cross-field passes that he’s terrific at. Scholes was more calculated. He always had that control about him, controlling the speed and pace of a game, which is pretty difficult to do. He was an absolute one-off.

“You can’t replace players like that. You hope you can get something approaching it, but you’ll never replace Scholes. We’re all searching for that. Everybody is searching for the special player who makes the difference to his team.”

Indeed, this summer has left Ferguson facing the very real prospect of entering the new season with solely Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher as the Scot’s front-line central midfielders. It’s a sobering thought despite Carrick’s promise to exert greater influence in the coming season. One in which the Geordie’s shared responsibility is unlikely to bring much comfort.

No Sanchez, Modric, Sneijder, Nasri … nor any surprises

June 20, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 120 comments

So the brilliant Alexis Sanchez is off to Barcelona, with the Catalan giants paying the best part of €30 million for the 22-year-old Chillean winger. Little surprise there, with most observers rating Sanchez as a player with genuine pretensions to join a very elite group of players at the top of the world game. Diminutive, quick, with mesmeric feet, Sanchez will likely replace Pedro Rodríguez or David Villa in Barça’s starting XI next season. He is an archetypal Barcelona player and will surely rise to world stardom under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.

Manchester United was reportedly interested in the player, whom the red tops have repeatedly suggested as Old Trafford bound. There was even an argument – baseless as it turned out – that Sanchez preferred a move to England, with more opportunities for first team football supposedly on offer. The Udinese player will achieve that and more at the European Champions.

Sanchez’ transfer could mean relegation to the bench for Pedro, sale of Jeffren Suárez and possibly Villa too, especially if Barça is still keen on adding Cesc Fabregas’ considerable talents to the squad. Villa is an outstanding marksman but one that has suffered for Guardiola’s decision to deploy the incomparable Lionel Messi in a central attacking role. Moreover, despite Barça’s massive revenues – considerably more than United’s – the club also boasts the world’s largest wage bill necessitating a period of relative austerity.

Despite this fact, United could not – or possible would not – compete for a player that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team has tracked for three years.

Similarly, Chelsea’s aggressive approach to acquiring Luka Modrić will surely end – despite Daniel Levy’s protestations – in a multi-million pound transfer across London to Stamford Bridge, and not Old Trafford. With Roman Abramovich’s lust for football reinvigorated and Tottenham Hotspur’s historically selling its best players, Chelsea will increase the bid until west London achieves the transfer it desires. It may take all summer, with Modrić keen to repair bridges before departing.

After all, while the Croatian is not widely regarded as a player to cause trouble the very reasonable argument that a midfielder of his calibre should be playing in the Champions League is hard to counter. Without European football it is widely understood that Levy will rationalise Spurs’ playing resources this summer. The chairman is heading for a collision with manager Harry Redknapp, after the former Portsmouth chief demanded Levy buy two “top class” players; this to compete for a place in the top four and keep Modrić at White Hart Lane.

Ferguson’s admiration for the diminutive Croatian is well known but United cannot, and surely will not, compete with Chelsea for the 25-year-old’s signature if it comes to a bidding war. Michael Essien, Arjen Robben, John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack will attest to Ambramovich’s unique powers of persuasion in the face of interest from Old Trafford.

Then there is Wesley Sneijder for whom has there is not a shred of evidence that the player is interested, let alone prepared to agitate for, a move away from Milan this summer. More to the point, the economics of a deal remain eye watering, with the Dutchman’s lengthy contract enabling Internazionale to demand a huge fee, while the Sneijder’s net wages exceed those of Wayne Rooney. Supporters should take summer speculation with a large pinch of salt.

A similar attitude might be relevant when it comes to Arsenal’s Samir Nasri, who has played a smart game during contract negotiations at the Emirates. Arsenal may well invest this summer to quell the Frenchman’s unrest; the club will also substantially increase an initial £90,000 per week offer.

What then of United’s plans to rebuild this summer? The club is already committed to deals for the teenager Phil Jones, goalkeeper David de Gea and winger Ashley Young but at least one marquee central midfield acquisition is surely a priority. At a minimum Ferguson may want to replace Paul Scholes, Darron Gibson and Owen Hargreaves. After two humiliating defeats to Barça in three years, the Catalans utterly dominant in midfield, replacement of that trio is truly a bare minimum.

It is instructive to note that of Ferguson’s last 12 acquisitions, including this summer’s business to date, none has been a central midfielder. With Scholes’ ageing legs, Hargreaves ongoing injuries, Gibson’s failure to improve and Anderson’s inconsistency, the decision not to strengthen last season bordered on the negligent.

Ferguson surely cannot repeat the trick?

Yet, with United unlikely to spend more than £30 million on an established talent under the Glazer family’s ownership, it remains to be see whether the Scot can improve his options in central midfield. Indeed, it leaves Ferguson with a dilemma; persuade the Glazer family to change established club policy, or revert to type and invest in a younger player with a high potential resale value.

Wingless Ferguson

May 1, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 16 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson is on record stating that he has never used a traditional 4-4-2. It is true, however, that systems he has used over the years, including 4-2-3-1, are cousins of the orthodox 4-4-2. It is not true though that Ferguson is tactically inflexible; he has used variants of 4-3-3 and even three-at-the-back systems over the years. However, one thing is consistent over all these years – no matter what Ferguson’s tactics, he has always used wingers.

It is no great wonder that the Scot prefers wingers in his side – Manchester United has been particularly blessed in the department. However, Ferguson’s luck with wingers is  running out and it may prompt a change.

Antonio Valencia, whilst good, is a limited player. Ferguson’s comment that the Ecuadorian would have been purchased regardless of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure suggests that Valencia was bought not as an indirect replacement for the Portuguese, but to take Park’s place as someone who can be deployed in big games to pin back full-backs. Nani, on the other hand, has come leaps and bounds this season, although the issue of consistency still lingers, and media reports that Nani is positioning for a move to Italy cannot be ignored.

It also remains a problem that Valencia and Nani are both naturally right wingers. This column has previously discussed why Nani performs better on the right. Valencia, being a more limited player, simply cannot play on the left. An easy out is to purchase a left sided player – it is perhaps the reason why Ashley Young has been linked to United in the press.

Even if Ferguson’s situation with his wingers is resolved, the midfield remains a problem. This column has previously argued that United will probably persist with 4-2-3-1 based systems and purchase an advanced or deep-lying playmaker to add some “stardust” to the team. It was an argument made before the burgeoning partnership between Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández.

In recent games Rooney has been deployed in deep roles;  deeper than he has ever played in his career. The English international has revelled in the freedom afforded by depth. With Hernández stretching the play, Rooney has all the time and space to do whatever he wants. Hernández is the key – the opposition defensive line drops so deep to pick him up that Rooney is often left without a marker. This is a great partnership and one that shouldn’t be altered.

Does this mean that an exciting attacking midfielder can’t be brought into the club this summer, and must United persist with wingers? An attacking midfielder, for argument’s sake let’s say Javier Pastore, can be bought and played in a 4-3-1-2, with Rooney and Hernández deployed up top. However, a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of Luka Modric can be bought and fit into the existing system. It is, indeed, a more likely option.

But what stops the old Scot from making one last big tactical change before retirement? After all, Ferguson has shown over the years that he isn’t afraid of the change.

Ferguson has already tried out the wingerless system in the League Cup game against Southampton. The game ended disastrously, as the midfield failed to perform.  The issue with such systems is width. Midfielders and strikers must work tirelessly to provide it in lieu of traditional wingers. But United does have players like Rooney and Darren Fletcher, who are tailor made for such roles.

Another boon of using a wingerless system is that Michael Carrick would be freed. With so many players around him, the Englishman won’t be pressured as much and will be able to provide calm passing from deep.

However, another concern with the 4-3-1-2  system is facing teams that do utilise width extensively. AC Milan was destroyed by Tottenham Hotspur this season for precisely this reason. In such matches United can revert to 4-2-3-1, placing wingers or players such as Rooney in wide positions to counter the threat. Additionally, Chelsea showed last season that wingless formations can work in the Premier League if the team is good enough.

The coming summer will be exciting for many reasons. One of them could be that Sir Alex abandons his only tactical constant.

A “Harg” one to take

March 6, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 53 comments

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.