Growing up, my dad always stressed the importance of distinguishing between what I needed and what I wanted. Sure, for a teenager that was looking to score the latest EA Sports FIFA game installment that was not a principle I was keen to adopt. But as I have matured, I better understand him and now regularly apply this philosophy. In another article on Soccersouls, I explored Manchester United’s transfer dealings and its difficulty in attracting top players every season. That article rightfully concluded that Alcantara was most likely going to opt to stay at his boyhood club, Barcelona or move to Bayern to join his former U-21 coach and mentor, Pep Guardiola. Manchester United did not lose out on Thiago, they never stood a chance.
This is especially true as reports never confirmed official negotiations between United executives and the player nor United club executives and their Barcelona counterparts. Recent reports have Fabregas being the subject of a United bid. Is the appeal of playing regularly for United enough to make Cesc leave his boyhood club after he agitated for a move away from the Emirates stadium two years ago? Should this move ever materialize, it will go down as one of the most surprising in recent memory.
With the era of the one-club player over, the influx of new owners distorting the transfer market and coaches tenure dictated by how many trophies they win; there are very few certainties left in football. For the Manchester United fan, one of their certainties used to be that Sir Alex Ferguson will get the best out of the squad for every single game. He retired after 26 years in charge of the club earlier this year leaving the Old Trafford faithful facing the last certainty that holds true—That is, the need for a quality midfield signing. But is this true? Many news reports continue propagating reports of how inferior United’s midfield is when compared to other elite clubs.
This article aims to discuss whether or not the reports of United’s demise are premature. After all, the inferior midfield won the EPL title and would have progressed further in the Champions League were it not for Nani’s rash challenge which resulted in a red card leaving 10-men United facing a full strength Real Madrid. The present midfield might now wow supporters with big-names but they effectively get the job done. Does United need a midfield signing or do they just want one? In the following paragraphs, I will present the midfield options available at United. Can these players challenge for the title and compete with the elite? We will attempt to address these questions with the information available.
We will start with the older, established players in the squad; Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Anderson. Nani, Valencia and Ashely Young have been left out because they play out on the wings and the transfer speculations thus far focused on central midfielders [attacking or defensive].
He proved last season that he still got it. His 2 goals ensured that he continued his envious record of scoring in every season for 23 consecutive years. At 39years, he is no longer the fast Welsh-wizard that made 30+ appearances. Last season he was limited to 12 appearances with 10 of those appearances coming off the bench. With 3 assists last season, it shows that he can still contribute offensively. Giggs has won 13 Premier League titles—He is a born winner and despite growing older has not lost his competitive edge. He is an effective substitute to bring on when the coach wants to protect a lead or needs an experience head to chase a lead. Can he still compete with the elites? Yes, he can. His minutes need to limited and properly managed by the coach to ensure the club gets the best out of him.
If ever a movie is made about the playing career of Carrick, I would like to suggest the title, The Reluctant Hero. To many fans, he proved his worth last season with his calm passing displays and interceptions. What many forget is that that has always been his playing style. His dismantling at the hands of Xavi and Iniesta in the 2009 UEFA finals revealed his one significant shortcoming. Deprive Carrick of the ball and he is rendered quite ineffective, he contributes best when he the team is dominating the game. Against teams such as Bayern and Barca, United cannot be assured of a large share of possession. The solution is quite simple, pair him up with a more combative midfielder that wins the balls from the other team. United briefly had that in Owen Hargreaves. Anderson, Fletcher and Cleverley have partnered with Carrick with varying levels of success. The midfield metronome and successor the Scholes is as technically efficient as the world’s best midfielders and can compete. So long as he is paired with a partner whose primary attributes complements his weakness. At 31years, Carrick is the present face of the United midfield. With his present level of skills, he can continue to compete at the top stage for 2-3 more years making 30+ appearances each season.
Having missed last season due to recovering from Ulcerative Colitis, this upcoming season is a make-or-break season for Fletcher. The 29year old defensive midfielder made 200 appearances before having bowel surgery that took him out for last season. He averaged 27.3 appearances from 2008 to 2011 [2008/2009 season: 26 appearances, 2009/2010 season: 30 appearances, 2010/2011 season: 26 appearances]. Can Fletcher recover from his dilapidating disease? That is what we will have to wait to find out. And his performances will determine if he can still provide the steel and backbone to United’s midfield. Fletcher can still dominate the lesser EPL teams, no offence to any of them. But it remains to be seen what level his performances will be this season. If he can return to his 2010/2011 season form, he can continue his budding partnership with Carrick. He may not be the marquee player that Fabregas or Alcantara is and it is up to management to decide if the United midfield has enough skillful players without making any other additions. I remain hopeful that Fletcher can be a valuable squad player that can effectively provide cover for Carrick and whoever he is paired up with.
The one that never was. Whilst it could very well be immature to call time on Anderson’s career at United, it is fair to say that he will never reach the heights that fans expected of him after watching his dominating performances at Porto. One school of thought suggests that Ferguson converting him to a defensive midfielder was where it all went wrong. For others, he never stayed in shape and is too injury-prone to sustain a 30+ season appearance or contribute consistently. Can he perform with the elite? Yes, but unfortunately you never know when he will bring his A-game. Off all the experienced midfielders United have, he is the most dispensable. His role on the bench can easily be filled by promoting one of the United U-21 players. Time for the team to cut its losses and invest in potential instead.
Of the experienced United players, Only Carrick is a sure starter. Fletcher is a maybe and will be a huge gamble for an entire season. Giggs needs to have his minutes managed Anderson can be cut off. At the risk of sounding like an alarmist— The situation at United is bad. How bad? Very bad.
In the second installment of this series, we will look at the newer midfield players in the squad; Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverey. Jesse Lingard and Adnan Januzaj will also be included because they have been listed as part of the 2013 tour squad. Again, this discussion excludes wingers explaining why Wilfred Zaha will not be discussed. In this final installment we will also discuss whether fans’ clamor for a marquee midfield transfer signing is needed based on the talent and players available at the club or it just a want—a rather expensive one.
As usual, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below. Keep reading Soccersouls and keep an eye out for the final installment of this series.