Tag Midfield

Tag Midfield

After defeat, what next?

March 2, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 52 comments

The matches against Crawley Town and Marseille were unbearable for most Manchester United fans. Old Trafford, famous for fans loudly urging the team to attack, has become a boring place of late – a sad thought for anyone who has witnessed classic matches at the stadium. Despite United scoring more goals than any other side in the Premier League, the Reds performances have also been sub-par this season.

The problem lies in the squad. United does not lack numbers but the quality is noticeably missing. Pundits, such as Didier Deschamps last week, have long pointed out the lack of “stardust” in midfield, with Michael Carrick and Anderson performing poorly and Paul Scholes no longer able to cope with pressure. The engine room is remarkably pedestrian.

Fans point to Mesut Özil and Rafael Van der Vaart as missed opportunities but neither of the two would have fitted in well at Old Trafford. Panic buys are not the answer either but, at the same time, it is hard not to blame Sir Alex Ferguson and his scouts when another outstanding midfielder, Shinji Kagawa, was purchased for almost nothing in the summer.

Just as the season before, Ferguson probably intended to funnel attacks through wide men this campaign. Ferguson’s tactical experiments this season – the new 4-4-2 and the gridiron style 4-5-1 – rely heavily on wingers. The plan has worked to a degree – after all, only Barcelona has scored more domestically than United in major European leagues.

It remains a doubt whether the anticipated return of Antonio Valencia will help United though – after all, there is no guarantee that the Ecuadorian will regain his pre-injury form. Even should the winger miraculously recover, the 25-year-old’s return to the first eleven will see Nani moved to the left. On the left, the Portuguese is predictable and easy to defend against. It is true that Nani has become much better decision maker this season but there is no guarantee that he will perform on the left as well as he has on the right.

Indeed, the most realistic scenario is playing Park Ji-Sung on the left, once he comes back from his knee injury. United will most probably persist with the 4-5-1 and rely on Nani and Rooney to come up with moments of magic. But as previously noted, the 4-5-1 system stifles United’s full-backs and John O’Shea will normally be preferred to Rafael da Silva in the formation. It remains to be seen whether Rio Ferdinand’s return will prompt Sir Alex to reinstate the Brazilian full-back – after all, the need to protect the “quarterback” trumps having an attacking right full-back.

United is in perilous position after the defeat at Stamford Bridge last night. Given the hamstrung morale of Arsenal after the Carling Cup final loss, the Red Devils still remain the favorite for the league. Most realistic challengers to the FA Cup have already been knocked out and United will be the main contender for the Cup should the Reds triumph against Leyton Orient or Arsenal.

It is harder to judge United’s prospect in Europe though – it isn’t bright but the semi-final remains a viable goal assuming a kind quarter-final draw.

There is a more interesting question is about the future though. How can United turn its fortunes around and fashion both an exciting and winning team? Fluidity is hard – the club cannot simply buy it’s way to becoming Barcelona overnight. Indeed, United has an effective set-up and Ferguson will probably invest in only a player or two to fit into the current system, rather than attempt a complete overhaul.

Moreover, the current 4-5-1 can be entertaining; theoretically, the emphasis is on width and tempo. The key is the deep-lying playmaker. He must be able to withstand pressure, in order to free both full-backs. A physically robust “quarterback” will allow Rafael to play, instead of O’Shea.

In this system, the “quarterback” starts all the attacks, mainly through balls out to flanks, so he can’t just be a defensive midfielder either. Candidates include Nuri Sahin of Dortmund, Ever Banega of Valencia, Luka Modric of Tottenham, Sergio Busquets of Barcelona and Bastian Schweinsteiger of Bayern Munchen.

Another feasible idea is to acquire a playmaker and deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation. With two defensive midfielders, the full-backs are freed. It has another benefit – with lots of players in the middle, possession maintenance is easy. Counter-attacking football, against sides that perhaps take the initiative, is also easier with two wingers placed high up the pitch. The system is also tailor-made for high-tempo, attacking game – the system was conceived in Spain to press.

Finding a playmaker to fit in such system is slightly more nuanced than it appears though – classic trequartisti are much harder to build a side around than their modern cousins who are more direct and busy. Candidates include Luka Modric of Tottenham, Kagawa of Dortmund and Javier Pastore of Palermo.

A left-winger also remains an issue. This column has extensively written on Park and specifically why playing a defensive winger is actually a bad idea. Ryan Giggs can’t play forever and Nani’s ability to play on the left is questionable. Juan Mata of Valencia, Ashley Young of Aston Villa and Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina are possible targets.

Other options exist too. Mario Gotze of Dortmund, Kagawa and Modric are playmakers by trade but they have all played on the left. In fact, buying a playmaker who can play on the left will allow United to rotate players on the fringe – Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández and Valencia – with ease.

United is still on course for a pretty good season – just a player or two away from becoming more entertaining. The dull games over the past two seasons have been painful but United fans must not forget that they been more blessed than most football fans in experiencing glory and good football. The very ability to soldier through bad times separates the real fans from the fair-weather ones – after all, the option to “fuck off and support Chelsea” or any other fashionable team always exists.

C’est le milieu de terrain, stupide

February 23, 2011 Tags: , , Matches 35 comments

When Rant mused last October that Sir Alex Ferguson had been negligent in his efforts to improve Manchester United’s midfield, the article drew a varied and passionate response. Four months on and little has changed, with United investing nothing during the winter transfer window and injuries starting to bite on Ferguson’s midfield options.

Indeed, United will arguably go into tonight’s tie with Marseille at Stade Vélodrome with the weakest midfield at the club for a more than a decade. Ferguson will begin the tie without Ryan Giggs, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia, each of whom is injured. Long-term victim Hargreaves will possibly never play for the club again, while Anderson is set for a period on the sidelines after suffering another knee injury at the weekend.

Fortunately for the Scot, Giggs should be fit for the match at Wigan Athletic next weekend and Valencia is back in light-training ahead of a March return to the first team. Meanwhile, Park, whose form this season has noticeably dipped, is out for a month with a hamstring strain.

Assuming that Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nani all start in a 4-5-1 formation, maybe one and possibly two of Darron Gibson, Bébé and Gabriel Obertan will start against the French champions. It’s a frightening thought.

Alternatively, Ferguson will move Wayne Rooney into a wide left position – a role that he hates – and deploy Dimitar Berbatov as a lone-runner up front, a role that he is ill-suited for. After all, the Bulgarian plays in less than a third of United’s ‘big’ ties, where Ferguson usually opts to pack the midfield.

It instructive that on the last occasion United played Marseille, as European Champions in October 1999, the Reds started with a midfield that included Giggs, Scholes, Roy Keane and David Beckham. An unfair comparison perhaps – that quartet was unmatched in European terms until the recent all-conquering Barcelona model – but an enlightening nonetheless.

More than a decade on, whatever label is attached to Ferguson’s currently midfield policy – call it lack of value, call it Glazernomics – it is one that is likely to fail. Now beholden to the fortunes of age and injury, Ferguson’s midfield lacks any depth in quality.

Indeed, supporters are now reduced to hoping that United’s fringe players come good based not on any evidence but blind faith that Ferguson will get it right eventually. Yet, Gibson, Obertan and Bébé have each performed poorly this season. So much so that only the most optimistic of supporters can hold any long-term faith in the trio. So poor were they against Crawley Town in the FA Cup last weekend – particularly the latter pair – that it is not unfair to suggest none would make it at the Blue Square Premier club – based on the evidence of that match at least.

Even if Ferguson can cobble together a midfield for tonight’s match he will have no options from the bench. Injuries aside, Bébé and Obertan’s recruitment has in turn blocked the path for Tom Cleverley at the club, with the England Under-21 midfielder shunted out to Wigan for the season. Youngster Ryan Tunicliffe is the only other midfielder available to Ferguson for the trip to Southern France.

Yet, the future is just as uncertain as Ferguson’s team selection tonight. The 69-year-old Scot has asked Paul Scholes to remain at the club for another season. Ferguson has previously talked-up Anderson’s role as the Englishman’s successor – a boast for which there is scant tangible evidence to date.

“I am more than hopeful about Paul signing another contract,” said Ferguson yesterday.

“I think he should. His fitness isn’t in question. I think Paul feels he has to play all the games. It is not a bad thing to be that way but at his age, that is impossible. But he can still play a big part for Manchester United, this season and next.”

Meanwhile, Carrick may well join Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic in signing a contract extension. That the club tried to offload the Geordie last summer demonstrates the turnaround in either the former West Ham United player’s fortunes, or more likely Ferguson’s thinking.

These events suggest that any fans hoping for a marquee central midfield signing will be disappointed come the summer. Indeed, all talk of United’s supposed £100 million transfer budget in the wake of Rooney’s contract saga last autumn has died down. Quelle surprise, as the French might say.

Should Scholes sign for a final year at the club along with Giggs then conspiracy theorists will have yet more evidence Ferguson will go come summer 2012, handing off the challenge of rebuilding United’s midfield to another man.

Still, it is the nature of football that little surprises. United lost 1-0 in France 12 years ago, even with the aforementioned world-beating quartet in midfield. If United pulls off a win with Gibson, Bebe and Obertan steering the ship tonight it’ll be an even bigger shock.

Sacrebleu!

It’s the midfield, stupid

October 4, 2010 Tags: Opinion 75 comments

Watching Manchester United’s midfield completely swamped by Sunderland on Saturday one couldn’t help but think of the long season ahead. Patently past it’s best and with no effort made to improve the quality this summer, Sir Alex Ferguson stands accused of being negligent in his strategy to improve United’s midfield.

This observation is true whatever restrictions the Old Trafford money men have put in place recently. Certainly, Ferguson is either not willing or not allowed to spend heavily, with the club laying out a net £10 million this summer. So overused has it become that the ‘V-word’ cannot be mentioned without it becoming yet another cliché of the Glazer regime.

Not that the resolution to United’s problems necessarily lies in spending vast sums but Ferguson’s midfield – comprising mostly of players years past their peak, perennially injured, out-of-form or simply not good enough – now cannot compete at the highest level unless the Scot places faith in weight of numbers.

Even then it is almost impossible to make an argument that any United midfielder falls into the – for want of a less hackneyed phrase – ‘world class’ bracket.

Little has changed since the end of the window of course. United began the season with question marks hanging over each member of the midfield other than Nani. Even then fans were right to ask whether the Portuguese winger could replicate his form over the second part of last season in the coming year.

Elsewhere Ferguson possesses plenty of options but little stardust.

Even Paul Scholes, who has been fabulous against mediocre opposition this season, found it impossible to impose himself on the game against Sunderland. It is little wonder, with the 35-year-old’s legs failing him when United’s opponents press fast and hard as the Black Cats did on Saturday.

Scholes’ erstwhile creative successor, Michael Carrick, still appears slumped in the stupor that he has inhabited for more than a year now. The former Spurs player’s ability to screen United’s defence and rotate play at speed was essential to the club winning three Premier League trophies in a row from 2007-9.

Few regard the Geordie in that bracket now; perhaps even the manager, who almost certainly sanctioned a move away from Old Trafford in the summer had any suitable bids been lodged.

Anderson too has much to prove now he is recovered from serious injury. The Brazilian was unlucky to find himself occupying a loose left-sided position against Sunderland after his role at the head of United’s midfield quintet in Valencia last week. But he was again wasteful in possession on Wearside, gifting the ball away one third of the time. Worst still, only one incomplete pass was what might be deemed an attempt to create a goalscoring opportunity.

The Brazilian promises much but has so rarely delivered in his three season’s at Old Trafford to make supporters’ hopes that the 22-year-old will ride to United’s rescue seem fanciful at best.

Even Darren Fletcher is suffering this season, with the Scot’s performance well below the level United fans have come to expect over the past two years. It says much for the improvement in the Dalkeith-born player that fans are disappointed rather than merely resigned to expectation when the Scot fails to lift United from its midfield slumber.

It leaves Ferguson with the rest, which offers little hope of a short term fix, except to those of a perennial optimistic bent. Giggs, a true United legend, will pass 37 this season and can no longer operate frequently on the left wing. Darron Gibson continues to shoot at every opportunity unless a safe five yard pass offers itself instead, although the Irishman frequently traps the ball just as far in any case.

On the left of the Derry Dynamo, Park Ji-Sung can be seen running up any blind alley offered. So poor are the South Korean’s performances since the World Cup that even the clichéd energy seems to have drained from the lifeless corpse that is the 29-year-old’s form. Workrate is his raison d’etre.

Gabriel Obertan’s chances of a first team match in the coming months are minimal, while Owen Hargreaves could make his return in this month’s Carling Cup third round tie with Wolverhampton Wanders. If his leg remains attached at the knee, Ferguson will surely be pleased.

Meanwhile, in the midst the barrage of incompetency United served up on Saturday, £8 million Rafael van der Vaart continues to star for Tottenham Hotspur, £12.4 million Mesut Özil takes La Liga by storm and £12.4 million Wesley Sneijder continues to do what the Dutchman has done for the past year. It’s that V-word again.

Despite the gloom that comes with more dropped points, Bébé made his Premier League début at the Stadium of Light, coming on for Anderson with 10 minutes to go. It’s about as much as Zoran Tošić achieved in two years with the club, so therein lies an improvement at least.

The £7.4 million winger, bought sight-unseen by Ferguson this summer, still has some way to go before the exorbitant fee is recouped by the club. Never has United needed the homeless more than today.

Poll: Who should Fergie pick in midfield?

October 2, 2009 Tags: , Polls 1 comment

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will soon be able to choose from 15 central midfield combinations, with his squad returning to full fitness. Paul Scholes was outstanding against Stoke City last weekend, while Darren Fletcher has been the manager’s first name on the teamsheet in recent weeks. Yet, outcasts Michael Carrick and Anderson were superb in midweek, and Owen Hargreaves will return this month. Then there’s the evergreen Ryan Giggs, who has increasingly been used as a central midfield playmaker.

“We’ve a strong squad. The problem with having everyone fit is picking the right team,” said Ferguson in his weekly Friday press conference.

“Our two central midfielders – Michael Carrick and Anderson – were fantastic against Wolfsburg, and I thought Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes were outstanding at Stoke. It is giving me a real headache.”

“On Saturday against Stoke, Scholes gave an absolutely masterful performance,” Ferguson added.

“It was incredible, he had 78 passes in the match and four were off target. Four.

“It’s phenomenal rate. As Stoke manager Tony Pulis said after the game, I can’t think of a better United player I’ve seen.

“You can understand that because when you see that kind of performance, it’s wonderful.

“Scholes and Giggs are defying their age and the enthusiasm, confidence and maturity that is in their game and it’s refreshing to see that players can retain these qualities for such a long time.”

What combination should Fergie pick in midfield?

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