When it comes to Manchester United I must admit I find it hard to be objective. I am an optimist, which I think is for the best. When I hear people criticise my precious football club, I feel like I am pre-programmed to defend each of the players from any and all eras of Sir Alex’s glorious tenure.
The current criticism I’m hearing most frequently, from the man in the street to the ‘expert’ ex-professionals who pollute our televisions, is that this current Red Devils side have ‘no midfield’.
This has made me angry verging on irate on an alarmingly frequent basis. I tend to resort to shouting an extensive list of names in response: “Carrick, Scholes, Cleverley, Kagawa, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs, Jones, Powell!”
You would assume that angrily yelling this list of names would be the end of the argument. No further debate necessary, all is well at the Theatre of Dreams. If that’s what you think, I would advise you to take a seat and read on in the knowledge that this is not the case at all. It turns out that the list of names I scream into people’s faces generally leads them to two conclusions:
- United are no longer a team to be feared and lack the quality associated with Ferguson’s previous incarnations. They are there for the taking by any team that takes the game to them in an aggressive manner.
- My erratic and volatile behaviour makes them uneasy and could easily become a matter for the police.
So let’s take a step back from any emotional attachment I have to the club, and ignore the little boy inside me (I mean that in the purest possible sense). Is the United midfield in need of major surgery?
The first point to be considered is the popular belief that United desperately need a holding midfield player. The boss was directly asked about this during a press conference in May 2012, and he opined: “I don’t think we’ve had a holding player since I’ve been here. We’ve never had a holding player”. He went on to reference the Spanish trio of Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta. These pint-sized magicians certainly know how to boss a game, as proven against United in a couple of Champions League finals. That being said, even they generally play alongside the physically capable and defensively-minded Sergio Busquets.
So with all the midfield options already at the disposal of Sir Alex, why do opposing fans scoff at this current crop of Red Devils? I suppose the first reason would have to be physical weakness. Is there anyone in the guise of Robson, Ince or Keane? A midfield warrior who can grab a game by the scruff of the neck, and drag the rest of his team to a victory? A leader who cannot only play, but can firmly let the opposition know that he is there by giving them a good, healthy, welcome-to-the-game clatter? In all honesty, probably not. Darren Fletcher at his very best may come close. Sadly, even an optimist like me isn’t hopeful he’ll return to his former level. Perhaps Phil Jones is the answer? Then again, perhaps not.
Like every other United fan, I love Paul Scholes. I genuinely rate him as the best English player of his generation by a country mile. However, it scares me how reliant this team is on a 38 year old with limited mobility. It scares me even more that his direct replacement is a 39 year old with understandably limited mobility. This must be Scholes’ last season, and yet he is still the go to guy when United are in trouble. Spurs’ recent win at Old Trafford was a worrying indication that a high level team with the power and pace of Dembele and Bale no longer need to resign themselves to defeat when visiting Manchester. After a first half of pace and aggression that largely passed him by, Scholes controlled the second half of that game and almost turned it on its head, but what happens next season if he is in the stands watching his beloved Oldham Athletic when United find themselves in need of a ginger midfield saviour?
United have a good midfield with good players. It is a midfield that can cruise to victory against most Premier League teams by outplaying and out-passing them. I am comforted by this thought. It is a midfield that is comfortably good enough, and with enough strength in depth, to be there or thereabouts when domestic honours are being picked up come May. So what’s the problem?
Watching United in a big game, like a European knock out fixture or a Manchester derby, makes me feel a bit like how I used to feel on a first date. I was excited that things could go well, and thrilled at the prospect of things working out; but ultimately with the really good looking girls, terrified that I’d do something stupid, and then would lack the experience and robust character to turn things around and stick one in late on. Like the United midfield I also lacked the physical strength to bully my date (opposition) into submission.
I trust the boss and I can understand why he has put his faith in this current crop of players. There is potential in a lot of the younger players that he is obviously looking to exploit, the development of the now 23 year old Tom Cleverley probably being the most notable, although his most consistent trait has been his injury record to date. My concern is not that this will never be a very good United team, but rather that it will not be a great United team. I gave up on the unacceptably tubby Anderson about two years ago and he hasn’t convinced me I was off the mark. Kagawa looks good but not inspiring. Nick Powell looks bright but more of a number 10, of which there are already numerous options.
Maybe I’m living in the past and football has moved on. Maybe this United team will evolve into a free-flowing, swash-bucking ‘bastion of invincibility’ that simply does not require the snarling dominance of a Roy Keane figure. I agree that a holding midfield player is not a necessity to win the top competitions. Being realistic though, I think United need another option to take them to the next level. I would rest so much easier watching a midfield with Yaya Toure or even Marouane Fellaini- a midfield destroyer who doesn’t go missing when the going gets tough. I never liked Claude Makelele and didn’t understand the hype he received with his now widely acclaimed ‘Makelele role’. I would not want to see a United side that surrendered a valuable midfield position to stifling the opposition. What I would like to see is a midfielder with a bit of steel who would let someone like Stoke’s Michael Kightly know who the boss is when he has the gall to think he can run and score from the halfway line at Old Trafford like he did recently.
I know I’ve been spoiled over the years with the football Fergie’s teams have treated me to over the years. Maybe that’s why I’m an optimist. Unfortunately, I can’t help but fear the glory days are approaching the end unless the tinker man performs some midfield surgery. He should maybe throw in a couple of new full backs while he’s at it!