Having no dominant central midfielder is holding United back
In one sense, Manchester United are not short in central midfield. They have 12 players in the first-team squad who have played in that position; even Rio Ferdinand has been tried there in the past. In this case, however, more is emphatically less. The strength of Sir Alex Ferguson’s will is such that United can overcome almost any obstacle to win trophies, yet trying to do so without a central midfield is not particularly advisable.
Man Utd’s ragged performances at the start of this season stem as much from an exposed midfield as a weakened defence. Their vacancy in the centre of the pitch has been highlighted particularly by two excellent performances by Mousa Dembélé at Old Trafford this season – first for Fulham and then for Spurs on Saturday. One poster on the Red Issue forum neatly compared Dembélé’s displays to the ending of Bullseye: here’s what you could have won. United’s apparent reluctance to bid for Dembélé is hard to fathom: he was relatively cheap, especially for someone who, crucially, is Premier League-proven, and he has the kind of dominant, multifaceted game for which United are crying out.
Ferguson’s team are not short of ability in the centre, but there are doubts over almost all of their players. If there is a perfect storm, United will be fine in central midfield; that, however, would require Darren Fletcher to completely overcome a horribly debilitating condition, Anderson to lose weight and gain consistency, Ryan Giggs to remember how to pass to a red shirt, Tom Cleverley to fulfil his potential and Paul Scholes to become 10 years younger so he can influence the first half of matches as he does so gloriously the second. There are simply too many variables to make Ferguson’s policy explicable.
Michael Carrick is the main constant in United’s midfield. He is an excellent player with outstanding positional sense, still underrated despite so much glaring evidence over the past 10 years. But he is a gentle soul, a passer not a fighter, and his presence has contributed to the troubling recent phenomenon of United being bullied, often on their own patch. Quite what Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Roy Keane – who roamed the green with fibrous intent at Old Trafford for the first 19 years of Ferguson’s reign – must make of this is anyone’s guess. When they were around, nobody took liberties.
It’s easy to blame Glazernomics for all of this, but while their disgraceful reign has palpably had an enormous impact on the club, Ferguson has spent about £190m over the past five years without buying a single central midfielder. (You might count Phil Jones and Nick Powell, although their original positions were elsewhere.) The replacement for Scholes turned out to be… Scholes. That expenditure has included luxury signings such as Dimitar Berbatov, Bébé and Robin van Persie, a glorious player, but certainly not the most pressing priority this summer. It’s akin to blowing your last pounds on a plasma screen when you can’t afford bread and milk.
It is difficult to understand Ferguson’s reasoning. He clearly has faith in the likes of Cleverley and Fletcher, though there may be a degree of sentiment in the latter. Perhaps he has a blind spot, as Arsène Wenger did with defenders for so long. It’s also true that there hasn’t been a no-brainer signing, as there was when Keane became available in 1993, although Dembélé and Javi Martínez, who joined Bayern Munich from Athletic Bilbao this summer, would surely have significantly improved United’s midfield.
It’s not entirely inconceivable that Ferguson is biting off his purple nose to spite his face. He has form for being wilfully contrary and has become a little tetchy on the subject recently, reportedly saying that United have never bought a defensive midfielder in his time at the club. This is a disingenuously semantic point that ignores the fact he has bought plenty of midfielders who can defend. His suggestion that Powell could be Scholes’s replacement was a self-justification that verged on the bizarre. Yaya Touré’s presence down the road serves to further highlight what United are missing. Here, indeed, is what you could have won: not just one of the world’s best midfielders, but also last season’s Premier League title.
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