Find a Keane before you suggest a Veron…


AUTHOR: – Doron

People say the Premier League is faster and more of a physical challenge than ever before. Yet United, in the past 20 years, have seen Keane, Ince, Butt and Robson leave and now have Carrick, Scholes, Anderson and Fletcher. The flavour of this season has been that we need a creative midfielder but I’m about to tell you why that’s not the priority in the central midfield area.

A couple of years ago, Paul Ince and Roy Keane came up against each other as managers. In the build up, Ince reflected on one of the most fearsome central pairings the Premier League has seen, “We felt we could intimidate opponents before we went out on the park. That was the idea, and it seemed to work most of the time. We had a belief that we were the best midfield players in the Premier League. Whether we were or not, it doesn’t matter. That was the mindset we had. Sometimes we were lined up in the tunnel at Old Trafford and we knew we had teams beat before we had stepped outside.”

Ince and Keane would only play together at United for two seasons, however they’d set the benchmark for midfield expectations to come. It was fitting that their partnership and the club would flourish whilst Bryan Robson was on the payroll. For they were able to apply everything that had made Robson come to be known as Captain Marvel, but in a winning team. Robson still remains as the most complete, all-rounded central midfielder that the club have had under Ferguson’s stewardship.

The idea that United lack a creative midfielder first (re)appeared 18 months ago in The Guardian. Since then this belief has gained a large following and is still being discussed and debated. As recently as last week, the BBC’s response to United’s defeat at Wolves was that they lacked a creative spark. It’s been a theory or belief that has been around since just before Veron signed but was put to bed for a few years when Ronaldo started leaving his mark on the team. I don’t disagree with the notion that United’s main rivals in the league all have more creative midfields than ours (Chelsea are probably the exception and lets not forget we do have Paul Scholes) and I don’t necessarily disagree with the fact that United might benefit from some new signings, however there are questions that have to be addressed…

…have United ever had a creative midfielder under Ferguson? Has it ever worked? Can it work now?

I asked a question on Twitter a week ago… “If you could sign one central midfielder for United, who would it be and why?” – I had loads and loads of responses but not a single person said that United shouldn’t sign anyone. Rarely has the general consensus among fans been so conclusive that a central midfielder is needed. 62 out of 71 fans replied suggesting an attacking or creative midfielder. The remaining 9 all suggested a box-to-box midfielder who could do both defend and attack. I must point out, I’m not advocating getting rid of anyone from our squad – there are lots of supporters though who do believe some players need to be moved on. I fall into the category of ‘trust the manager, if we need someone, he’ll sign someone’.

Inadvertently, those 62 fans want United to adopt a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (they’re all essentially the same!) as their primary formation. In a quick split-second of thinking, I’m struggling to come up with an example of a Premier League team that plays 4-4-2 with two proper strikers (as opposed to Spurs who usually play 4-4-1-1 with van der Vaart behind a striker) and a creative central midfielder. Spurs have done it on a couple of occasions, as have Everton with Arteta but otherwise I’m struggling.

The 4-4-2 formation has been Ferguson’s preferred choice of set-up since arriving at the club. This season, nearly 75% (28 out of 38) of United’s games have seen Ferguson set the team up in this way. He’s tinkered with it a lot over the years and often played variations particularly upfront. In 1990 McClair sat behind Hughes; in the mid-90s Cantona also played a deeper striking role; further back Jimmy Greenhoff and Stuart Pearson didn’t always stick to a classic 4-4-2 formation.

One theory I had put to me was that it’s only an increase in awareness in formations and tactics that has lead to them being discussed more – the tactics and tinkering of formations has been going on for years. The reality is that United, like most teams, haven’t played a static 4-4-2 for a long time now but lining up with two wingers, two central midfielders and two strikers is the way Ferguson likes to go. What Ferguson has always had his variations of 4-4-2 do, is attack with width – from Kanchelskis to Giggs to Nani to Sharpe to Beckham.

United have generally always had 4-4-2 as their primary formation. However in the 1960s a 4-3-3 was sometimes used to free up George Best (Morgan, Aston and Charlton in the middle, Best roaming with Kidd and Law up top), in the same way Ferguson has changed the way his teams have played to free up Cantona and then later, Ronaldo. Formation’s are important but sometimes it’s simpler to look at what you have and work out a way to get the best out of the players rather than trying to fit them into a system.

It was arguably this rare mistake that Fergie made with Veron. After success with true box-to-box midfielders, Robson, Keane, Ince and to an extent, Butt (Scholes although could do it most often was found higher up the pitch whilst one of Keane or Butt would do an anchoring, defensive job), Ferguson brought in Veron – at the time, the best creative playmaker in Europe. Without going into details, Veron’s short United career was a personal failure for him but a learning curve for the club and Ferguson. Veron’s problem was that he could only operate successfully in a three man midfield (generally the preferred formation in Europe hence Veron’s really top displays in the Champions League) but in a 4-4-2 he struggled.

This is the crucial part of this blog.

Veron’s failure in a 4-4-2 was as much Ferguson’s fault as anyone elses. There is only one way that a creative player, a playmaker can work in a typical 4-4-2 (forget the tinkering, when United attack, they attack in that shape) – and that is with the correct partner. That partner has to be a very specific player – a Robson or a Keane (’94-’99). Someone to do all the running, to win the ball, to track back, to burst into the box. The problem is that such a player rarely comes along. There are few true box-to-box midfielders in today’s game (for me, in England the best is Scott Parker, otherwise Schweinsteiger is the best at it). Veron never played with that kind of partner and it was naive of Ferguson to think he could come in and succeed in a brand new system to him (one can argue that the best players are capable of adapting though).

Ray Wilkins, maybe the last of the more creative midfielders pre-Veron had Robson; Keane and Ince had each other; Veron had… no one. Veron’s short-comings forced Fergie to try and change the formation; he even said in the summer of 2002, “When we operated with three in midfield there is no doubt we controlled most of the games”. It shouldn’t have taken Veron’s inability to adapt for Fergie to change the system. He either shouold have built a team around Veron and tried to fit 10 players into a new system (longshot); or he should have also signed someone who’d compliment Veron. The problem for Veron, was that he’d always revert back to his preferred 4-4-2 – in 2000 he said about United, “We are a complete 4-4-2 team”.

What the club and Ferguson learnt from the Veron experiment was the value of the 4-3-3 in keeping the ball away from home in Europe. Feruson’s reluctance to dip into the transfer market lately may well reflect that he’s learnt from the error of trying to fit Veron into a 4-4-2 without the correct partner. Creativity in a Ferguson team comes from out wide, it always has done. The central area is the powerhouse of the team, the engine. Very few teams will change a whole system to suit a player – hence signing central midfielders under Ferguson has been a very selective process (clearly there have been some errors of judgement – Djemba-Djemba; Liam Miller and Kleberson – who had bad luck).

Earlier, I said there were three important questions that needed answering – have United ever had a creative midfielder under Ferguson? Yes. Has it ever worked? Not really. Can it work now? Yes but only if the club’s main formation and culture changes.

So if we are to look to strengthen in central midfield; what should we be looking for?

Well if fans think the club need a creative midfielder then before they suggest the Sneijders and Modrics, a proper box-to-box à la Ince, Robson or Keane needs to be found first. For me, such a player doesn’t really exist at the moment. We’re fortunate that in Ryan Tunnicliffe there is a kid in the Academy who is starting to show signs of a very good all round game but in general with the success of Spain and an emphasis on technical footballers lately in English academies, (England have been criticised for lacking them) the classic box-to-box midfielder once associated with the game in this country is a dying breed.

Ferguson has therefore got a bunch of midfielders who can do a bit of everything (bar score). Carrick is a box-to-box midfielder come anchor man who can’t score; Scholes has reverted to a quarterback role; Fletcher is an all round combative workhorse and Anderson still truly hasn’t had his role defined yet. It may well be that if the club had a Keane, that player may perfectly suit Anderson in a higher role. We shouldn’t be so concerned about a perceived lack of creativity in the middle, we have plenty of it out wide (and arguably could do with even more) – what we should want more of in the middle is goals and players who aren’t afraid to shoot.

Picking 11 players and making them work is like a jigsaw. You can’t put one player down if he doesn’t fit in with the guy next to him. The central midfield area is the core of the jigsaw, everything revolves around it – you only need to read United Rant’s excellent piece on how the fullbacks have a direct impact on the central midfield to understand how fragile a formation is and how easily it is upset.

Football since Keane and Ince has changed – United can dominate midfields in a different way from them. We’ve had success without a creative midfielder before and that could be repeated again this year. Just because our rivals have a certain type of player it doesn’t mean we have to follow suit. Remember, United are a 4-4-2 team. Before wishing for a creative player to be signed, think carefully about the impact that could have on everyone else and then maybe consider if it’s a different type of midfielder we should be signing.

I welcome all comments and thoughts on this – I certainly could be totally wrong; so let me pose a few questions to start some discussion: Should United follow current trends and make the 4-3-3 formation the teams primary formation? Should United in fact strengthen another area of the team – say out wide, reasserting the club’s main creative threat to its traditional area of the team? Upon reading this blog entry, if you feel the club need to sign a player, who would it be and why? Should the club take inspiration from Keane, Ince and Robson and search hard to find a player in that mould or is that kind of player and role now not necessary? Is scoring goals from central midfield the biggest issue, not creativity?

Finally, a big thank you to Tony for advice on this topic, providing historical examples and generally playing devil’s advocate whilst I did my research!

AUTHOR: – Doron

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49 Comments on Find a Keane before you suggest a Veron…

  1. Excellent article, very well researched and thought provoking. Personally I feel we need to make two or three signings in the summer, a keeper to replace VDS, Neuer or De Gea, a left winger Alexis Sanchez/Eden Hazard perhaps and presuming that Hargreaves has no future then someone that can play the Busquets/Essien role – as suggested in the article if we go all out and sign someone of the ilk of Pastore a trequartista then we simply have to shift to a 433 or a 451 full time and not change our shape at all. This in turn would be detrimental to our strikers, on Saturday we had Berba, Chicharitio and Owen on the bench – presuming that Owen leaves we would also have the much improved Welbeck and Macheda returning and not getting much game time – so the question is who could play this midfield role? I haven’t seen enough of Steven Defour to pass judgement and Jordan Henderson could perhaps benefit from another season or two at Sunderland but I have faith in the boss that he can solve this conundrum. Finally we also have Cleverley returning and if he pushes on and has a successful second half of the season could solve the need for cover at left wing!

  2. Here are few things i would like to tell.

    Firstly i do think there are few players who need to be sold. If they do find their form back, fine, or else just sell them.

    2. This is the time when we are looking at proper biulding a team. I fancy ps18 will leave if we leave League or UCL. So in about 3 years of time

    We have – Young BACK 5 . Pretty Exp Wing and Forward positions. So the Building the mid could well be the only thing we need.

    HENCE – We defi Need to BUY someone. Giving Carrick a ext is what i think is wrong, Carrick is not the ans this season, SO how can he be the ans for next? Plus he is no more “the best passer” in England anymore (Atleast he is not showing he is)

    2. We have to take in the fact , which i think is more imp : Sir Alex DID say he will build team around Ando dint he? SO looking at him, a free flowing, good passer, always with energy CM. I think we need a good young player to play with him, who will give him the liberty to go up and be more attacking as he is. IMO This plan supports Jack Rodwell. He is in the category of DM i suppose and he is the “Hargo” like strong fig i feel. Will be strong at back so can allow Ando to go up, and also, he does chip in goals and has ball feeding abilities too. I STILL THINK Penetration is what we are lacking, no one really can give a wonder pass or can go thru mid in a jiff, CM IMO need the ability to feed the strikers up rather than score the goals, WE have Roo, Chicha and Nani to scores goals

  3. @Craig

    Cheers for your response. I agree we need a winger, if only to provide some competition; and I agree RE a goalkeeper.

    The problem with central midfielders is that so much emphasis is being placed on creativity coming from the middle today – at United, traditionally it’s always come from out wide. If we had Essien and say Fletcher or Ando (Ando would flourish into a good box-to-box player with the right partner) in the middle you can see how that’s a strong team – looking at that Ince quote at the beginning we’d once again feel like we had the midfield battle won before the game started.

    I really don’t know what I think we need. Part of me is looking beyond the first team and thinking that if we can hold out for another few years with what we have plus one more maybe then we have some big talents in Pogba, Morrison and Tunnicliffe who could well have some of what we need.

  4. @MyCow

    I think it’s important to understand the role our midfield do. Look at our game against City and you’ll see constantly the players in the middle are trying to shift the ball wide. Whether we dominate a midfield by be tough (Ince/Keane) or by passing (Fletcher/Sholes/Carrick); it’s never been our creative area.

    RE Carrick – to understand the role he’s been asked to do this year, take a read of this –

    I agree that finding the right player to play with Anderson could be key… for me, the biggest problem is not creativity but goals. The fact that our CMs seem scared of getting into the box or having a shot – the creativity comes from out wide. Keane, Scholes, Butt, Veron all used to chip in with their share of goals

  5. I would tend to lean towards the 4-4-2 shape, purely because of the plethora of striking talent we presently have in our first team squad. A few times this season, we have gone with a 4-3-3 and had problems with width. I think it makes far more sense, given your argument above, to look to strengthen out wide. The right side seems pretty well covered, but I think with Giggs heading into his golden years we should look for a left-sided winger. For me, that player has already come and gone: David Silva was the ideal replacement for Giggs. There are rumours of us looking at Ashley Young but I would much prefer a left-footed player as I think we already have Nani who can play on the left when Valencia is fully fit. He’s looking helluva confident off both feet at the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised – and this is really dependant on Spurs qualifying for Champions League – if we made an offer for Gareth Bale in the summer. I think that Spurs would only consider such an offer if they didn’t make the top four. Who else is there at the moment besides the above two and maybe Di Maria?

  6. @Coolidge, Durban

    I’d agree that a winger is needed. I’m not sure it matters which side they can play, ideally someone who can play on both flanks. I think we need to be able to rotate the wingers more and as we’ve seen with Park and Valencia out we’re so reliant upon Nani and Giggs.

    We do have Obertan and Bebe (both of whom have been used a lot as strikers in the Reserves) and whilst certainly I think the former has a lot of talent, he’s still too raw to be called upon all the time. One more winger would add competition and I think may be needed.

    The flip side is, Cleverley is coming back from his loan and although he plays best in the middle, his versatility could see him used wide; and of course the dreaded “let’s play a striker out wide” experiment could return with Welbeck coming back (although I sincerely hope he comes back to be played as a striker, not a winger!)

    As for who else… I’m not sure; Alexis Sanchez is an interesting choice. The thing with United wingers, they need to be able to be great crossers and hence although it may sound silly at first, Stewart Downing wouldn’t be the worst choice.

  7. @ Nameonthetrophy

    Totally agree with few and partially with other

    What i think, if there isant a Scholes or Ando, every one just tends to give the ball out wide as we know Nani is the best chance we have of getting a goal.

    Also, We did see against city that defi Central Penetration works much impact, silva, Yaya i thot were very good at penetration, silva was shit at finishing so he dint score.
    I AM TOTALLY AGAINST buying a bale or some winger, we are more than happy with TonyV and Nani on wings. IF someone from the academy can come in real big time , fine, maybe Pogba? Or else i would like to see Rodwell, proven player and he does , atleast can chip in goals. I am not to fond of henderson, he is just nother wide passing players

  8. Great article – dovetails nicely with mine on Busby Way.

    One name that springs to mind is De Rossi – but is a bit of a gamble and could be expensive

  9. We should break the bank and sign two players.MODRIC and SCHWEINSTEIGER and release Carrick and Gibson.They are a good age and as they grow old they’ll give the likes of Pogba,Tunycliffe,Norwood a chance to grow and this kids will benefit from their experience.

  10. Very interesting article. Over the past 18 months I have actually thought we needed both a Keane-type player and a creative midfielder. Your article has definitely changed the way I think though.

    One thing I don’t get though, you say Veron had no one with him when he played for us…but Keane was in the same team as him(?). Unless you’re saying he was past it by then.

    I have watched us struggle away from home many times and just wish our centre mids would start putting themselves about a bit (Carrick, Fletcher & Anderson) and bullying teams (what Keane and Ince did)…but they don’t…it’s not in their character.

    I live in the North-East and have seen Tiote play for Newcastle many times and that player would definitely bring something to our team that we don’t currently have, make him the Keane type player if you like. He might free up Anderson to express himself more. In that case another signing could be someone to compete with Nani and Valencia for two wing positions. We will need someone there given Giggs is nearly finishing and this may be Park’s last season.

  11. It all depends on SAf and how he wants to balance spending a fortune on players or giving youth a chance to flourish.

    Watching the Academy and Reserves on a weekly basis, the players you mentioned (Pogba, Morrison & Tunnicliffe) are only a few years away from making it in our first team, maybe sooner.

    Tunnicliffe is the perfect example of that box-to-box midfielder provding the energy in midfield aswell as helping out when going on the attack.

    Then we have Cleverley, Welbeck & Macheda. Where does Cleverley fit in next year? He’ll need to play first-team games to develop as a player. On the left we’ll have Nani & Giggs. Maybe becuase Tom’s versatile, he’ll slot in as an attacking midfielder. This means reverting to 4-3-3 unless we go and buy an anchor man to support him.

    Have you see Yann M’Vila? Defensive midifielder, French, 20 years old and has been likened to Viera but he’s got a very different stature. Smaller but much stronger similar to Essien.

    A quote from M’villa:

    “Manchester United is the club of my dreams. It’s a very prestigious club and I dream to play for them.”

  12. @Ng’ash

    I personally like to back our squad players and rarely advocate them being sold but I’m struggling with Gibson now. As for Carrick, he performs an important role – did you ever get the chance to read this?

  13. Vwery good article Doron – reallyenjoyed it and it is very thought provoking. But there are a few things I would debate about – firstly there is another team who plays 4-4-2 with a creative midfielder – United! Last half hour V City we played with Scholes as part of a 4-4-2 as we have done for years. If you have a very technical player in midfield they are less likely to give away the ball. With a fitter more mobile creative player coming in we should be more capable of playing 442. Especially with wingers of the intelligence of Giggs and Park.
    The amount we create from the central positions is not near as much as we used to – we still rely on Scholes to do the business there. We have our solid base in Carrick and Fletcher. In Anderson we have a player who can still perform very well for us. But without Scholes we are lacking a spark from that area. If he retires in the summer then filling his absence with a water carrier will be both sad and leave us very flat.

  14. you reckon Fergie wanted Veron to excel in 4-4-2 as well? wasn’t his signing an
    affirmation from Fergie’s part to announce his team is thinking about tactical changes (in Europe and league) in the middle?
    As Jonathan Wilson said in one of his Guardian columns once, Fergie wanted to alter his formation after the defeat against Madrid 10 years ago, and all his signings in the early phase of the decade prove it. ‘United are a 4-4-2 team’ couldn’t be any further from truth, at least in 2000-10 years. United’s 02-03 title winning season had Paul Scholes playing just befhind Nistelrooy with two midfielders providing the normal service. United won nothing in the next few years (formation played a small part) and Jose at Chelsea proved he can counter against a typical 4-4-2 easily. strating from 06-07 United hardly play 4-4-2 (though he started with two strikers) and it was tactical acumen of Queiroz played the main role. United played 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, often 4-2-4-0 or 4-3-3-0 and players upfront interchanged their position during the games. needless to say, this tactical switch brought a few trophies to the club from league and Europe. Antonio Valencia, so called old school winger was successful in both 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 but reduces the amount of flexibility team can afford during the games.
    coming to the point of article, if United are going to play typical 4-4-2 in the future (already look bleak), as author mentioned, there aren’t many players in Keane- Ince mould. Fergie’s cautious approach in big games and in Europe (just like in 2001, Dropping Teddy deep and limiting Giggs’s runs) certainly proves Fergie doesn’t beileve the current crop can boss a midfield with two men. to be fair to current players, there aren’t many in Europe who can do that in big matches on a consistent basis (BS did a Carrick role in WC, and he plays in 4-5-1 at Bayern). why not a tactical change? far better than playing Rooney wide left against Blackpool and Birmingham and still outplayed in the middle.

  15. @MK

    Yeah I should have clarified the bit about no one being with Veron…Keane did play with him but Keane was no longer the box-to-box player that he was from ’94-’99 -> he assumed a much deeper role which didn’t really suit Veron – I for one don’t think Veron necessarily failed massively but in doing the research for this I came to the conclusion that his United career was a failure (well more of a failure than a success)… it wasn’t necessarily his fault it didn’t work out, he was the best in the world at his role at the time (some therefore might argue he should have been able to adapt better)

    You’re right our CMs don’t really bully teams like Keane and Ince did but they tend to do it in other ways by keeping the ball well (that often gets overlooked).

    I’ve heard people suggest Tiote before and judging him on this season he’s certainly not a bad shout. Anderson is a hard one – I love the guy and think he has so much to offer but we must find him the right partner to allow him to express himself. I agree that signing another good winger would be good, the added competition and ability to rest Nani/Valencia could be priceless

  16. @Liam_TF

    Thanks for your comments Liam. Yeah I think the three Academy players you mentioned all are big prospects – the problem is how long can we wait for them to mature, grow etc so that they can be part of the first team?!

    Cleverley certainly may become a victim of his versatility – he’s best in the middle but we shouldn’t be surprised if he covers out wide.

    Yes I’ve watched Yann M’Vila, I remember seeing him in 2007 at the Euro U17s – he’s a good player. Someone like him could help to free up say Anderson – no one doubts Ando is talented but we’re yet to really find the right partner to help him express himself and play in the role that suits him

  17. I agree with the overall premise of the blog but dispute some of the facts.

    Wasn’t Veron signed to play alongside Keane, who you said earlier was the last box to box player that United have had. Similarly, Nicky Butt was still around at this point (in fact at the time of Veron he was at his peak just before his immense World Cup performance in 2002 where Pele cited him as a shoe in for the Brazil side). This indicates that Veron did actually have partners who could play as box-to-box midfielders (you referenced Butt as to a lesser extent a box-to-box midfielder).

    I disagree that box-to-box midfielders are of a dying breed. I can only cite players such as Essien, Gerrard, Gattuso, Flamini, Xavi, Iniesta, even Fabregas to an extent as midfielders who can play box to box. ‘Someone to do all the running, to win the ball, to track back, to burst into the box’

    Either I am mistaken, and these players are a more specified type of midefielder, However, I am sure that there are a lot of fans who would identify these players as box-to-box, and I would personally put Darren Fletcher in that category. Yaya Toure as well under Mancini seems to be an example of a box to box midfielder in the making.

    I think the problem with Veron was that he wasn’t suited to the British game in its pace and physicality, rather than the fact that he was simply just attacking. It was also evident that he flopped at Chelsea. For Veron, his attributes were passing and being capable sometimes of the spectacular (my favourite goal of his is against Olympiakos, chipping the keeper after a one-two with Beckham).

    The Premiership would never have given him the space and time that Serie A (a much slower league) evidently gave him. I thus think that it wouldnt have mattered who he was partnered with, he just wasn’t suited to the style of football. That’s my personal opinion, and you may even cite his fantastic start to 2001/2 season as a counterexample, but that is the way I felt (frustrated generally) when I watched him.

    United’s current midfield, for me, is lacking a bit of spark. I actually recommended Sneijder as a suggestion when you tweeted, and my reasons for doing so is that it is clear that Scholes’ days are numbered (in a way much more urgently than Giggs’ are). What we need to replace is the ability to play a killer ball, hit a cross pitch pass, and read the game in a way that other players can’t. I also think that we need a Scholes like figure who can play higher up the pitch, rather than the quarterback position that you cited as Scholes’ role now due to his age and limited legs.

    So, whilst I agree that Veron didn’t work for formation reasons, there is something to be said about other reasons why he didn’t achieve. Also, its not clear that box-to-box is a dying trade, and the Scholes passing range is something that we need to plan ahead for.

    I do think this was a great article and enjoy following this blog, hope this comment wasn’t too much waffle!

  18. @arun

    Oh yeah, absolutely Fergie signed Veron to be able to play 4-3-3 in Europe but the problem was that 4-4-2 is the formation associated with the club and the players in the team played best in that way. It’s easier to play 4-4-2 and ask 1 guy to adapt than play 4-5-1 and ask 10 guys to adapt.

    It’s just that problem that Fergie has never been comfortable with going with anything other than 4-4-2 as his main formation hence Veron’s failure (which ultimately it was despite him not being as bad as many choose to remember) was never his own fault…

    A tactical change is certainly one possibility – all our main rivals don’t play 4-4-2 anymore so why should we? I don’t know the answer… if we decided properly that 4-5-1 was our main formation we’d grow into it. But that involves almost reteaching a load of the current squad to play in a different way

  19. We do need a creative midfielder my friend. Your article is VERY convincing. But, if you tell me our team wouldn’t have scored more goals with a player like Sneijder or Xavi, it’s … We do need new blood, as good as we are, but we are dominated a lot at times in the middle. If I had the chance to snap VDV before Spurs for 8 MIL!? I would. I am just wondering, is Nani going to be shipped back to the left wing after Valencia comes back? Or is Valencia going to be benched? Hmm .

  20. @Josh, Leeds

    Veron was signed with Europe in mind… his signing allowed Fergie to go 4-5-1 away from home. In a 4-4-2 it was all about the right partner, as I allude to, it’s like doing a jigsaw, the pieces must fit. Veron didn’t fit with keane who was only truly going box-to-box until ’99 – after that he dropped into a deeper anchoring role. Veron’s best performances in a 4-4-2 came with P.Neville of all people (combative style who was everywhere winning the ball all over the pitch, not just in the deep areas)

    As for box-to-box players; none of those mentioned (bar Gerrard) are really box-to-box players… Essien isn’t really box to box; but he’s certainly closer to it that the other players you mentioned.

    Yaya Toure started that way against Mancini but he’s now used at the top of their midfield three, less box to box but he could probably do it. Fletcher should be able to do it but for some reason and I don’t know why, I don’t really put him in that category.

    Veron not being suited to the pace of the game here is I think one of the misconceptions associated with him. I think he wasn’t suited to the formations used at United more than anything. It was all about him having the right partner in a 4-4-2 and that was generally overlooked.

    The thing with Sneijder is: fantastic footballer but he’s your perfect example of a modern day trequartista – he wouldn’t work in a 4-4-2 without the right partner. Much like VdV at Spurs… hence VdV is used behind the striker rather than in CM (because Spurs don’t have the right player to partner him)

    Personally I think if we found the right partner for Anderson it would free him up. A United CM is all about tough tackling, being pumped up and physical and someone who can accurately get the ball forward or out wide.

  21. arun – Hasn’t 4-4-2 just evolved since that Real Madrid defeat in 2000? I agree that United didn’t play 4-4-2 like the days of old, but the club has always been based on open, attacking football using wide players.

    I’ve read Wilson’s article on Fergie’s changing the system, which I agree did happen – but the inclusion of Veron in a 2 man midfield with Scholes in front was more reminiscent of United’s 93 4-4-1-1 with Cantona just off Hughes. As we all know, Scholes struggled in his more advanced role, and was always much better operating a deeper and making forward runs.

    Josh – great comment, thanks for your input. I agree that box to box players do exist, but I think (and correct me if i’m wrong Doron) you were speaking about the classic box to box midfielder in a 4-4-2? All the player you mentioned Josh play in a three man midfield (with Flamini the only one that plays in a 4-3-1-2 and who’s role is very different from the other players mentioned) and are indeed box to box, but not in the same ‘open sense’ as 10/15 years ago.

  22. @Stretford-end

    Yep players in a 4-4-2; the role changes quite a bit in a three man midfield; requires much less of the player and a less dynamic player hence the Essien example is somewhat true but wouldn’t necessarily work in a 4-4-2

  23. Interesting article but I think you’ve made a glaring oversight; Paul Scholes has been one of the most creative midfielders in the history of our Club. There’s little merit in an argument pointing to a period of unparalleled success while overlooking one of the main contributors’ attributes.

    We all know that Scholes can’t tackle; he can read the game very well and marshal opposition play into less-dangerous positions but he’s certainly not a Keane, Ince, Butt, Hargreaves or Fletcher. He’s a creative midfielder like Fabregas & Iniesta. The reason a creative midfielder is being sought is-as replacement for Scholes. Nobody looks capable of filling the role – Anderson, Fletcher, Carrick, Gibson? Not a chance.

    We play both 442 & 451, depending on opposition (433/4411 – all just 451 IMO). We need a very steady midfield duo to anchor the team and a third cog to add-in when we play 5 in the middle. Currently we haven’t a duo capable of holding our midfield together; Scholes and Fletcher were a good pairing but age and form have affected them respectively. Fletcher has the ability to regain form and fill the ‘Keane’ role over the coming years; the problem is we have no Scholes.

    Cleverly looks to have similar attributes, though not as much skill & vision. If the lad were a year older and more experienced I don’t think we’d be too worried, perhaps Fergie thinks he’s ready and will throw him in next season. There’d be no complaints from me as I think he looks a very capable player.

    Like a good pairing at the back and up-front, the central position needs balance. Currently it’s lacking balance and no matter how many variations we play it hasn’t changed – it needs to be addressed.

  24. @Stephen

    THANK YOU! You’re the first person to mention Scholes!! I’ve been waiting for someone to. I purposely left that out the blog as that’s a whole-nother blog in itself. The thing with Scholes in a 4-4-2 is that he needs protection and arguably we don’t have the right partner for him to be able to regularly play in a 4-4-2 (hence it tends not to happen!)

    I think it could be necessary to find the right partner for Ando to enable him to flourish, we keep seeing sparks of what he can do

  25. @Abdulla

    Would you like to see us adopt a 4-5-1 then and play with 1 striker to accommodate a creative midfielder?

    As for Nani/Valencia – when Tony is fully fit I expect Nani to go out to the left. Hopefully the work he’s clearly done on his left foot means he won’t cut in off the left flank as much as he used to

  26. @Jig3000

    Quite right. I did purposely leave out Scholes as he in himself is another blog altogether.

    Thing with Scholes is that go back 10+ years and he played further forward and was partnered with Keane or Butt in their prime. Whilst I left out a reference to Scholes, the same still applies in that it’s all about having the right partner – Scholes worked back then because of what Keane and Butt could do.

    Since dropping back deeper, notice how Scholes rarely plays in a 4-4-2 now – it just doesn’t work because he doesn’t have the right partner to do it.

    I’d argue that at present our central midfield has too much balance! The best thing about say Wilkins and Robson was that they were polar opposites; one very creative and somewhat immobile; the other a pure box-to-box thoroughbred who could do everything. That’s the beauty of balance in the midfield. Having a bunch of players who can all do pretty much the same thing (which we pretty much have now) is too much balance!

  27. nameonthetrophy

    I’m referring to balance in terms of Creativity balanced by strength, skill balanced by speed, lungs balanced by brains, ying & yang – like the majority of successful midfield pairings.

    What we have is a bunch of limited players who are reasonably capable in various areas but excel in none. I see Fletcher as the exception, he has the ability to be our speed, strength and lungs; he needs somebody to compliment him. I would love if Ando achieved his potential, his form is so incredibly intermittent it’s a massive worry – if he reached form and held-on he might just fit the mold. As it stands, he doesn’t.
    PS: I’m still not sure why you left out Scholes when discussing the midfield, it’s like discussing Germany in the 40’s and leaving out the war 😉

  28. @Jig3000

    Fair points – I think the thing with Scholes is that his creativity is very different from the creativity of a lot of the players people suggest and we’re linked to. Scholes’s creativity (and correct me if i’m wrong) is all about his vision and range of passing; many of the players we are linked to have a different type of creativity, much more linked in with flair and beating a man.

    It’s also hard to talk about Scholes because he’s changed so much – when he retires and people come to write about him it’ll be so hard to sum him up! Arguably as his role has changed and his position has become deeper, he’s become more creative.

    If Scholes was a truly creative midfielder then why did we sign Veron?

    Like I said, the blog isn’t necessarily right at all and I’m pleased it’s sparked a discussion like this one!

  29. Scholes was left with too much creative responsibility when veron and Beckham were sold..this coincided with the barren spell, and a few freak seasons from arsenal and chelksi. Ronaldo, carrick and a resurgence from giggs helped but major change is required now.

  30. nameonthetrophy

    I agree with you that many of the players touted as replacements fall into a different bracket to Scholes. Many seem closer to a traditional no.10 than a central midfielder; we all know that both Rooney and Berbatov love to drop into the hole and as a result we’d have little room for that kind of player.

    In fact I argued during Ronaldo’s time, that we needed more width and Berbatov’s arrival was only adding to an already crowded area of the pitch. Buying an advanced central midfielder would land us back in the same situation again. (CR7 constantly drifted into the hole rather than keeping wide and heading for the byline ala Tony V)

    We won’t be replacing Scholes directly, much like we couldn’t replace Keane. My hope is that we can find someone to compliment Fletcher (Provided he’s the player Ferguson sees playing week-in week-out). Like I said before, we need two guys who are nailed-on to start every week, regardless of 4 or 5 man midfield. A third player can be added based on opposition, when needed, though my preference would be for a midfield duo capable of matching any opposition.

    Re: Veron, it was a luxury buy that backfired (to a degree). Ferguson is an instinctive manager, IMO, who falls in love with footballers; on the back of European success he had carte blanche to treat himself, Veron was a very attractive prospect and I guess Fergie thought he could squeeze him into the mix. I think Berbatov falls into the same bracket, he was a fantastic talent that Fergie couldn’t ignore; our system wasn’t suited to a player like Berb and it shunted Rooney around again, but Ferguson is a romantic and adores the vision, skill and creativity that players like Berb, Veron, Ronaldo bring to the game. It’s his Achilles heel in a way, but always worth a punt.

    Whatever happens I’m hoping for a midfield shakeup, whether it’s bringing the young guys into the first team and giving them a real go, or bringing someone from outside, I’m looking forward to watching things play-out.

  31. @Stretford-end
    yes, United’s attacks were always based on wide players. over these years, United had top notch central midfielders as well, who more often than not commanded their area to give enough freedom for wide players. with the inevitable imminent retirement of Paul Scholes, quality of United midfield is questionable and if latest signs are anything to go by, United never looked comortable with two men in the middle against a decent opposition in travels. not surprisingly, every attacking player linked with United does share the same positional standpoint (VdV, Sneijder, Ozil). probably time to alter the things in a small manner?

  32. @Jig3000

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head RE Scholes…we can’t replace him and shouldn’t try to… we couldn’t replace Keane but still went on fine, just have to try different things and alter the midfield a bit. When Scholes does retire we may have a shake up

  33. I think our formation should vary based on the team we are playing against.
    If utd are to strengthen any position it should be the defensive midfield, left back and forward so i’ll sugest lassana diarra, bale and cissokho respectively.

  34. Very interesting article, did someone every think of the pair Hargreaves and Anderson during the year 2008, I think given that we are not sure whether hargo will return back we need to have someone like him as fergie did say a few months ago when Ando signed another contract that he firmly believe Ando will be the replacement for scholes.

  35. PS. It is during the year 2008 that we’ve won the Premier League and the champion league, and it’s the same season that we did the final of the FA Cup

  36. An excellently written article. But here is what i think (could be very long) we have been trying to do recently.

    Lets go back 4 years. We bought a certain Michael Carrick. At the time Scholes still had some good legs left in him. So when we played a 4-3-3 Carrick was the quarterback, Fletcher was doing the box to box work and providing the energy and Scholes was pretty much up top linking up with Saha, Rooney and Ronaldo. But we came a up short against Milan, arguably because of not having a Defensive midfielder (not a mascherano, but a good tackler who can control a game).

    That shortcoming was already realized by SAF, but he could not get hargreaves but finally got his man. In 2008 we played a very interesting system a 4-3-3. We had Hargreaves as the defensive player, Carrick playing the creative role directing our play, while again scholes/anderson were being up top helping out the strikers (rooney, ronaldo tevez). Now this worked for two reasons. One is that the 3 up top were simply magnificent and individually brilliant with a great understanding, so all we needed to do in the middle was to provide a support and killer pass which we did in Anderson/Scholes and control the game, keep possession and win the ball back (which Hargreaves and Carrick did so well). The key to this system was Hargreaves who allowed us to play this system and we could not have done it without him. We played him out wide many a times too. In a 4-4-2 we played him and carrick sometimes which did not work very well imo, but playing him and anderson was a brilliant partnership.

    Next year though we lost Hargreaves. So SAF decided to change it, Carrick was asked to play deeper (mentioned here in another article), Fletcher was introduced as a regular starting box to box player with an engineroom (in which he flourished) while again it was Anderson doing the job as the high up the pitch midfielder. But this system worked because we had Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney and Berbatov. The plan was to control in the middle and let the creative players win the game. We got through games in which we did not dominate in the middle through sheer quality up top and the ability of our strikers (barring berba) to play anywhere (the Villa game, The spurs game in which we turned it around are excellent examples). But we did get outplayed in games like the painful 4-1 loss to LFC (fletcehr was not present which should be noted).

    But last season without Hargreaves, Ando’s injury and loss of form, Carrick’s loss of form, we’ve had to rely on Fletcher and Scholes but the third player in the middle was missing for europe. We complemented that with Park but it is just a time being operation to play him in the centre of 3 in the middle. As you mentioned we do not have a good partnership for the 4-4-2.

    So imo we could do 2 things now :-

    1. Get a Keane type player (nobody around though) like you said, and play Ando up with him and use 3 from the 4 of Carrick, Fletcher , Anderson and “?” in europe with Anderson being the attacking midfielder, Carrick sitting behind and the new Keane type player going box to box (Fletcher isn’t bad there though, but carrick needs to perform for fletcher to play there)

    2. Or we could get a Creative player as many suggest but whom to play with him is a BIG problem as you mentioned.It will work fine in europe but in the League in a 4-4-2? I doubt it.

    So what i think will be done is option 1 been done this summer and a creative player bought the next or if SAF wants to splash the cash he will buy both just like he did in 2008 with Anderson and Hargreaves.

    P.S. Sad for Hargreaves. If he would be fit (still hope he comes back) i don’t think we need anybody really. We could play him and Anderson in a 4-4-2 and add Carrick or fletcher to the Mix in a 4-3-3 as required and let the brilliance of Berba, Rooney, Nani, Valencia sort the rest out. I see us playing a system like we did against Milan or Bayern in Europe.

  37. Good post but I feel a little inacurate. If I remamber rightly when we signed Veron we played more of a 4-5-1 with the Ginger prince playing quite high up the pitch behind Ruud. He didn’t look particularily comfortable as the timing of his runs in to the box were premature. As well as the team adjusting to the new system we had to cope with the depature of Stam and Blanc coming in.This caused the back four to play much deeper creating larger space for Seba & Keano to cover. We also alienated Cole & Yorke with this system, remember Cole coming in scoring a few then having to sit out the big games. After Beckham & Verons exit we persisted with the 433 type formation with the likes of Keane, Scholes, Fortune, P.Neville, O’shea & Giggs generally making up the 3 from any of the above, Rooney & CR7 making up the wide forward areas aside of Ruud. On the Current team yes we appear to be back to 442, but I would say Carrick & Scholes pretty much play Holding Roles and Fletcher box to box with Anderson playing some games box to box some as an attacking Mid.Do we need a creative/attacking Mid I would say no I think we just need someone who is a dominant presence Consistant which I don’t believe any of our current 4 do as they all have shortcomings based on our lofty expections after all we have been treated to some of the finest.
    Don’t take this as a pop I just get a little defensive over Veron as it could have worked and I think he is sometimes a scapegoat for the lack of trophies at that time

  38. @3times

    Thanks for your comments.

    Not inaccurate my man. The article doesn’t claim we didn’t play a 4-5-1 with Veron in the league. If you take a look at what we played in the league it was a real mix. One week 4-5-1, the next 4-4-2. Fergie was never comfortable with the 4-5-1 system and if you look at Veron’s first season in the big CL games towards the end of the year we changed the system almost every game.

    The point of the article was to say that a creative CM requires a total commitment to a change in system and then I asked the question of whether it’s worth fitting 10 players into a new system? Hopefully it’s made people think a bit about it. Fans are quick to suggest creative player “x” without thinking about how it could work and realising each player is part of a jigsaw – the pieces have to fit for it to work.

    The article isn’t meant to have a dig at Veron, just cites the one time under Fergie we’ve signed a pure creative CM – I for one am a big fan of Veron and feel that his time at United is unfairly remembered by Reds. That said, it’s hard to say his time at the club wasn’t ultimately a failure – but not necessarily one of his own making.

  39. Stand Corrected nameonthe trophy. I just felt there was more to Seba game than being creative but I think him and Keano tended to occupy the same places and in fairness keano is legend. I mean watch the 98 England/Argie game and Veron dominated Ince.When it comes to ‘what we need’ I can’t subscribe to this creative mid player as we have plenty of creative players that interchange I mean Nani is the most dangerous player in EPL Scholes & Giggs are still picking holes in defences & both Berba & Rooney have the ability to drop in to let runners go beyond and find them & we still have Valencia’s crossing to return. Hargreaves would have provided the answer as he has the ability to destroy & I think his European Football education developed him technically. A lot of names being passed around really won’t improve us and I would rather stick with what we have if it doesn’t improve the team. Anderson still has the potentiol to be what he wants to be but it takes time for young players to add consistancy to their game. The only player that fits this mode is Schweinstiger for me (Scott Parker is to old). The likes of Adam will only serve to stunt development of the likes of Cleverly, Pogba & Morrison Etc.

  40. I believe that Man U on their day can beat all but 1 team. Fergie is a pro at exploiting an opponents weaknesses. However I do not believe that we will ever be able to beat Barcelona with a 442 system. I worry that buying players will slow academy kids development. If we buy a CAM like Ganso it will make it all the harder for Morrison, tunniclife and pogba to break through, especially if we buy rodwell defour etc.I really hope we do not buy de gea as he is SOO young!? No goalie from our academy would have a chance for the next 10 years! If the rumours that Giggs has signed a contract extension are true – that gives us an extra year to find a replacement, bale would be my 1st choice. I do think that major personal changes are immenant, nor because of player form, just because of ages. Carrick, brown, Oshea, all need to go as they have nonfirure and if we sold then now we might actually get decent sums for them. Owen also has to go, people saying he was a waste of time or money are either blind or not true Man U fans, his 94th minute goal in the derby was (IMO) worth his entire season’s wages! In the next fee years I would like to see bale replace giggs, and see Morrison and pogba or tunniclife given a chance to be scholes and Hargreaves replacements. We REALLY do not need a striker, with Welbeck returning to fill 4th choice slot behind rooney, berba, Hernandez, and Macheda to be sent on loan to PL side. M Diouff to be sold. So it is possible the only player we will need is bale! (+ possibly rodwell because he is great.

    About the ball winning CentralMid..we have not been able to land them twice..Fergie was nearing the solution when we had almost secured Essien.And then we had bid for YayaTOURE after 2008ChampLeague.But thwarted on both attempts.JackRODWELL almost certain to come in the summer with Everton having financial problems.Hopefully he can solve the puzzle and get some goals from Mid too.
    About a central creative spark,yes we will accomodate such a player if we chance upon him ie buy him relatively cheap and help him develop but Fergie is not going to buy “established” ACM thats for sure.

  42. If I could have any CM it would be a fit Owen Hargreaves. He is the forgotten man, probably because he will never come back again for Utd. I wonder if SAF has been holding out hope for Hargreaves, and signing a similar player would be a sign he has given up. I wish he didn’t have to throw in the towel, but unless Hargraves is back by the end of the season I don’t think SAF has a choice. I would love to see Fabregas, but realise its highly unlikely.

  43. Fascinating – Veron’s style of play was as someone has already commented not suited to the PL. May point is this re Paul Scholes replacement – he is already on the club books,can do box to box, pass short and long, score with ease his tackling is about on par with Paul’s ! His name of course is Wayne Rooney. He could do for the next 10/12 years what Paul has done for more than a decade. Converting Paul to be our midfield general was a master stroke – I believe the same is possible with Rooney/Anderson/Cleverley behind the likes of Berbatov/Macheda/Chicharitio in whatever formation you name.

  44. In the 1960s United played Herd and Law as strikers and Kidd after Charlton would play as the creative attacking midfield player.

    Wilkins was called the crabb at Old Trafford because of his frequency to pass sideways.

    Murhen was probably one of the most creative midfield playerts we have ever had and the likes of strachan and Macari and Mcllroy.

    However tbh I have never believed a player is one thing, I think a player must have many attributes, and he must compliment those that are around him and make a positive difference.

    United at their peak played with a box to box Keane and an attacking midfield player who couldn’t tackle but read the game brilliantly – Scholes. The reason it worked is we had two wide players who would work their backside off and support the Centre midfield players. And we had Cole and Yorke who were the best partnership in the world for two seasons. We also had a supersub Ole.

    I think you can get carried away with formations, you first choose good players and see if thewy play together. Fergie originally wanted Kluivert and may not have got Yorke had he succeeded.

    Moreover Scholes was going to be a player who played behind the main striker and Becks was going to be a centre midfield player. Players play well they stake a claim for the side they bring positives to the team they stay in the team. Fergie has tried 3 centre backs and all sorts of different tactics and stratergies that didn’t work. Bobby Charlton was a left winger at one point, Lou Macari a main striker et al.

    I doubt Ronaldo would have developed with Ruud in the team the way he did when he was sold.

    Moving back to the creative midfield player I don’t think anyone ever meant that should be the only side to their game, take Sneijder for example he can open up defences, score goals, is a good free kick taker has a good engine and is quick and I think two footed, he has a great footballing brain and has looked good in different leagues, at international level and in Europe for his club.

    He is made for Unioted with the little Pea as the main striker Rooney behind him supporing the midfield and Sneider playing a similar role to Giggs today in centre midfield with hopefully more goals.

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