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

  1. @Mancunian Red

    Thanks for the comment.

    I think you hit on something important:

    “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”

    I acknowledge a Sneijder player could work BUT I don’t believe that right now we have the correct player to partner him with to make him work. We don’t have a ‘Keane’ right now. Hence the piece suggests, find that type of player and suggest signing that type of player first and foremost and then we can look at and consider a Sneijder type.

  2. Comment by nameonthetrophy — April 24, 2011 @ 5:14 am

    Its all about opinion but I always believe that to have a goalscoring midfield player is critical, I doubt that Chelsea would have won anything without Lampard. And Scholes, Macari, Robson, Charlton et al have been critical for United in the past.

    Moreover I’m a massive Sneijder fan most consistent player for club, country and in the CL last season. He is made for United – I said we should have got him when Ronaldo was sold to Madrid.

    When I assess a player I ask what is he going to add and what are we going to lose. With Veron we already had a brilliant midfield and we were going in to unknown territory trying one up front and changing a successful midfield.

    I don’t rate our midfield at the moment and think Sneijder is one of the best midfield players in the world he does things to win games.

    That for me is critical, we need a few players who can change games. Sneijder is ideal for united through his vision drive footballing brain and consistency.

    Personally I’d sell Nani to buy him or gert Inter to sell. He would not be awe struck by OT and is a game changing player.

    TBH I am not sure what it is exactly you don’t like about him? Is it you thionk his work rate is poor or something I’ve missed?

    For me the little pea has the wonderful movement that allows creative players to unlock defences, he also has pace. Rooney has those attributes too and also supports the midfield. Valencia and Park work their buns off already to supprt the midfield. But for me our present midfield is poor, we need to have a match winner and the best or one of the best is Sneijder.

    I really do not think of a downside.

  3. @Mancunian Red

    I think you’re missing the point here. It’s not that I don’t rate Sneijder and/or don’t like him. It’s just I don’t see how he’d fit in at United.

    Fitting a player into a system is much more complex than a fantasy signing like some of the ones I make on football games on the computer or playstation! I allude to jigsaw theory in the piece. A player has to fit into a system with those around him. Individually Sneijder is a super footballer but he can’t just be plonked into our team with the presumption he’d play well – which is what we did with Veron and where we went wrong with Veron. It was no coincidence that Veron’s best performances came in Europe where we used a different system. As good as he is as a footballer, how does he fit in at United? He isn’t the kind of player who can play in a 4-4-2 which remains our primary formation (although we use variations of it).

    That is my point. It’s not that I don’t rate Sneijder, of course I do. But, I don’t see how he fits into the bigger picture at United, the formation/the system…

  4. Comment by nameonthetrophy — April 24, 2011 @ 5:36 am

    I’ve never played fantasy football of any kind and tbh after watyching 40 odd years of football live and analysing it I do find your comments extremely patronising. Believe it or not schock horror we are only talking about adding an attacking midfield player to a team andf not adding a 6th striker or one defender or a seventh winger. And Fergie did make the Veron signing I presume you do think Fergie has a right to compare with your almighty wisdom.

    And I know a player has to fit in to a system but you have yet to explain why Sneijder does not fit in to the system.

    And the reason Veron didn’t work was that he didn’t score the goals or add the creativity that he did at other clubs. Moreover the physical side of the prem got to him which wasn’t the same in the CL.

    Anyway tbh I’m not a fan of being talked down to I think it best if we just ignore each other in the future as I don’t do abuse or childish arguments. I like a good old fashioned debate but I’m not taking that sneijder is a playstation siugning even Fergie has made his interest well known

  5. @Mancunian Red

    It wasn’t meant to be a patronising comment and I’m sorry you feel it was that way. Moreover I referenced myself rather than you!

    The piece explains that for Sneijder to work in our primary 4-4-2 formation he would have to have the right partner in the centre – something we don’t have in my opinion at the moment. Like you said, Scholes worked because Keane was next to him.

    Veron joined at a time when Keane’s ability was waning. At both Lazio and Parma, Veron hadn’t played in a 4-4-2 at all and Fergie was naive to think he would be able to play in that system with ease. In the same way, it’s no coincidence that for Lampard to fit in and play well at Chelsea they’ve never adopted a 4-4-2 – it doesn’t get the best out of him as we’ve seen in the past few months when they’ve tried. The type of game that a Lampard, Scholes, Veron, Sneijder, Van der Vaart etc play is reliant upon either the perfect midfield partner (a Keane in his prime) OR a 3 man central midfield. Modern football proves that to be accurate assumption almost all of the time. The physical side of the game is true with Veron, he struggled with the speed of the PL as well.

    I’m not talking down to you at all and I don’t believe that was an abusive comment – there was nothing aimed at you! I was pointing out that it’s not that I dislike Sneijder but it’s almost impossible to find an example of a Sneijder type player playing in a 4-4-2 in modern football. It’s no surprise to see all the big teams with a player like that (Nasri at Arsenal, Meireles at Liverpool, Lampard at Chelsea, Sneijder at Inter, Ozil at Madrid etc) play a 4-3-3 not a 4-4-2. It’s the only way to compensate for having this type of player in my opinion.

  6. As a mad Aussie united fan since 66 just a few comments on the intelligent discussion above.

    I don’t subscribe to the concept that Keane’s waning ability was the main reason for the Veron/Keane combination not working. Wether it was pure hype or the amazing impudence of the backheel pass to Beckham on the run, Veron went from PFA player of the year to flop very quickly.(In the eyes of the media) If you wish to revisit tapes of the time, on Keane’s return to the team, he did not complete ONE pass to Veron in his first SIX matches. Clearly Keane came back into the team to compete in a pissing contest with the “new magician” for his midfield dominance. (a concept he has more clearly illuminated in his biography as well as his subsequent managerial ‘warfare’ with his players in the recent past) This is his nature! The crap to suggest that Roy always put team before self (built on the Juventes tie) is just that CRAP!!!.
    Call me a romantic, but Seba expanded the boundaries of what was possible. Keane would have been the perfect foil – IF HE WANTED TO BE!!! This comes down to Fergie’s famed man-management, or selective mis-management when it comes to certain individuals eg: Keane/ Ronaldo/ Rooney(I would love to ask him if he would treat the Keane/Veron dynamic differently now – both he and Keane have since acknowledged that they would now spend more effort in integrating South American players into the EPL than they did in the Veron time) I believe we missed a major opportunity when we discarded the Seba project only to end up with poor imitations in the current Scoles/ Carrick role. (To watch Seba play today with Estudientes makes me weep with what might have been)

    To comment on the current. I feel that the dominant spark to our recent form has certainly been due in some part to Ryan Gigg’s role in central midfield ie: the audacity to run at players, go beyond strikers etc into the space opened by the instinctive moment of Hernandez & Rooney. (check out our struggles in recent times when Ryan has been rested) To this end I see Scheider as an almost like for like replacement for the role that Giggs is currently playing ie no major re-adjustment to the system that appears to be currently working so well in MOST games. Is this the preferred option in every game: probably not, however it allows us to remain an indiputable threat to any team (always the best defence) whilst playing in the tradition that has brought us all to the club.

    Food for thought.

  7. I think we should sign a creative midfielder, even after reading this. I want to watch good football and I don’t see that happen with the midfieldplayers we have today, it’s a slow excruciating torture method to watch our midfield, I like every part of United except that. If we get one defensive midfielder and one offensive/creative, it would eventually go up in up, no need to have 2 work each ways. As I see it today we have 2 midfielders who tend to seek down in the field. I read a interwiev of Fletcher at the beginning of the season where he said he wanted to improve his abilities to go forward, that didn’t happen and that’s because he isen’t made for it, he is a ballwinner. Get the ball from the opposition and get it away from him fast as an eagle or he’ll lose it. Give me a creative midfielder or I’ll have to fine myself another team that play attractive fun football!

  8. I think Veron failed for a number of reasons :
    Firstly I’m not sure Fergie really wanted him . Around that time utd were linked with a number of playmakers who played further forward – classic number 10s like , Aimar, Ortega, Gallardo and Valeron as Fergie sought to reclaim the champions league and recover from embarrassing knockouts by Madrid and Munich. For me I felt Veron arrived when the other players didn’t materialise. Secondly when Veron arrived Fergie’s plan was to push Scholes forward into the second striker rOle , which was why Sheringham was allowed to move on ( I think he Teddie and Ruud would have been an awesome partnership). Scholes preferred attacking from a deeper midfield role and almost fell out with Fergie after refusing to play against Arsenal in that role.Thirdly Veron liked to drop deep and pick ball of the defence creating the passing tempo or spray long passes. Keane and Beckham already did that so they got in each others’ wAy so Fergie played him unsuccessfully wide right or as second striker

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