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It seems that this will be the fifth summer in a row that United have failed to invest in arguably the most crucial area of any team, central midfield. Not since Anderson and Hargreaves were brought in have additions been made – Cleverley has emerged and Giggs has redefined his role but otherwise the personnel remain unchanged. For many United fans, this has been something of an ongoing problem and going into the summer, once again, the hope was that we’d strengthen. Having spent close to £40m so far, a central midfield signing seems unlikely, but why?
Whether you think United don’t use the ball well enough or that United get bullied, one thing a lot of United fans agree on is that central midfield needs a signing. Someone who does something different to what we already have. There’s been this problem for a while, but it truly got highlighted when Hargreaves got injured. I’m in the ‘get me a dominant figure’ category but plenty think that we need someone a bit more creative in a deeper role.
The central midfield problem is that there have been too many instances where United’s midfield are unable to control a game, notably the bigger games. When facing a three man central midfield, our two are often overrun but yet when we’ve switched to a three, the balance just isn’t there, we haven’t had the players to make it work.
Scholes’ retirement last year should have seen United go into the market to find a replacement. It didn’t have to be a like-for-like but another body was needed. Luck would see those who remained get injured and eventually, United’s midfield took a turn for the better when the Ginger Prince returned. United will, one day need to replace Scholes and the longer we prolong that, the longer it’ll take for a replacement to settle and work with those around him.
This summer, United have bought a ‘number 10’, a striker and a promising all-rounder who we’re going to try and convert into a central midfielder. As in the past, no sign of a central midfielder. Yet, when you look at the squad going into the season, you can almost understand why. Whilst quality in depth is questionable, the numbers are alright with at least 6 or 7 central midfield options:
Anderson – entering season six it says a lot that he’s not yet first choice. However, a full pre-season’s been completed without any injury, a promising sign. Whispers that his knee(s) aren’t ever going to be alright will be put to bed for now and he’ll hope to rekindle the excellent partnership he had with Cleverley a year ago. Another year of injuries and/or mediocrity could well see the end of his United career.
Carrick – the most dependable of players. Like a metronome he sets the tempo for what goes on around him. Still, people fail to appreciate that passing both backwards and sideways is better than unnecessary risky balls forwards. His job is neither to score nor intimidate, he’ll quietly get on with intercepting the ball and making well-timed challenges before distributing it on to a teammate with license to take more risks. He remains vital for both club and country.
Scholes – the grand old master. Turns 38 this year and won’t play ever game but still adds touches of brilliance and uses a ball like no one else can. He and Carrick worked together superbly last season, both freeing the other up at times and ensured that United rarely gave the ball away. Keeping him fresh will be important.
Cleverley – so much promise and talent. Tom gives hope to all late-blooming footballers that with patience and hard work you can do it. He’ll want to avoid the injury-plagued tag that has been associated with him since Kevin Davies decided to crunch him (or even further back if you remember his Watford loan). He’s looked sharp at the Olympics, in pre-season and for England. This is a big year for Tom and it wouldn’t be surprising if he plays a big part now he’s fit again.
Fletcher – poor Fletch. He’s lost a lot of weight and despite 30 minutes at Aberdeen suggesting he’s on the road to recovery, it’ll be a while before he’s ready for the first team in competitive games, if ever.
Giggs – reformed as a central midfielder, he tries to be a calming, creative type. The bursts of pace and trickery remain but something hasn’t felt right for a year. He still provides assists and influences key moments but the consistency is no longer there and at times he’s a liability. Like Scholes, to get the best out of him, he needs managing.
Kagawa and Jones – neither naturally a central midfielder but both might be asked to play there. Already in pre-season we’ve seen Kagawa in a central midfield two and he did ok, but he seems wasted there as he comes to life in the final third. Jones as something of a destroyer is something that intrigues people but we’ve only seen it a few times – notably with Carrick, and it worked.
Tunnicliffe, Powell, Lingard, Cole and Petrucci – all talented kids who may be around this season. Ideally the four would go on loan but should they stay, they’ll probably get Capital One Cup action. Hard to predict how Powell will be used but he’s shown he’s not intimidated by the move to United and at 18 his development will be interesting to watch. The others have been around the first team for a while and some went on tour – Cole, Lingard and Petrucci are good technical players whilst Tunnicliffe is a brute – he’s different and that excites me.
As you can see, numbers-wise, the club are well stocked. The issue is that two of them need managing; one may not play again; and a further two have missed a lot of football due to a variety of injuries. When it comes down to it, Carrick’s the only one you’d say with some certainty could play every game next season, based on the past.
The issue I have is that they’re all a bit too similar and nice. The trend in world football right now is to have possession players but still every team needs a ball winner who’s a bit mean or a player who simply dominates. Barcelona have Busquets and Mascherano; City have Yaya Toure; Chelsea had (they still have him but he’s lost something) Essien; Arsenal have Song… etc. I’m perfectly happy with the numbers but I’d like someone different, someone at their peak, and someone who’d allow us to play a three man midfield with balance.
Entering into the new season, I can understand why we’ve not added to this part of the pitch. I’m not happy about it because I don’t think we have the quality-quantity-variety balance right but you can see why other areas have been addressed first. Ferguson and the club’s failure to address a central midfield issue will not go away but in a year, when Scholes and Giggs are likely retired, they’ll have no choice but to make a move for someone, albeit a few seasons too late.
Having done some brilliant summer business so far it would be amazing to think that it might be capped off by a central midfielder but once again we’re going to try and get away with what we have. Needs and wants get mixed up a lot but providing those who’ve been unlucky with injuries finally have some luck, the need for a central midfielder right now but just become a want.