Manchester United’s Midfield Conundrum

July 17th, 2013 by Michael Cox

man utd conundrumIn Sir Alex Ferguson’s unsuccessful pursuit of a third European Cup, his major rival was Barcelona – the side that defeated Manchester United in both the 2009 and 2011 European Cup finals.

Tactically, Barcelona placed an enormous emphasis upon the importance of central midfielders, with Pep Guardiola using holding players in the centre of defence and regularly playing without a traditional striker at the other end.

Sometimes, Guardiola managed to squeeze six central midfielders into the same side.

Strangely, during this period, Ferguson had the opposite approach, and frequently used players dramatically out of position in the centre. A shock 3-2 defeat at home to relegation-bound Blackburn Rovers on New Years Eve 2011 sticks in the memory – for that game, United’s bizarre central midfield combination was Rafael da Silva and Park Ji-Sung.

Granted, United had injury problems both in midfield and in defence that day, which meant Michael Carrick was forced to play in the backline. Nevertheless, it was an example of Ferguson’s curious reluctance to strengthen his central midfield zone, either in terms of raw quality or depth.

The last time Manchester United won the European Cup, in 2007/08, they arguably had the best central midfield options in Europe. Carrick, Owen Hargreaves and Paul Scholes were all intelligent, patient passers, while Darren Fletcher and Anderson were more combative.

By last season, however, Hargreaves had long since departed because of persistent knee injuries, Fletcher was restricted to a handful of appearances because of serious illness, while Anderson continued to underwhelm and Scholes had already retired once, and was on the verge of bowing out for a second time. Despite two men permanently unavailable, and two more playing bit-part roles, Ferguson failed to strengthen that zone. Tom Cleverley emerged from the academy, but he alone was unable to adequately replace the loss of so much manpower, and Paul Pogba’s instant impact in a Juventus shirt last season demonstrated why many United fans were so unhappy to see the Frenchman depart.

Therefore, in the last couple of seasons we’ve seen the likes of Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Shinji Kagawa, Ryan Giggs, Park and Rafael all play in the centre of midfield, all converted from their regular position elsewhere. Some have adapted better than others – central midfield is arguably now Giggs’ regular position – and United were still strong enough to triumph in the Premier League despite this obvious flaw, but one wonders to what extent Ferguson’s man management ability compensated for the shortcoming.

It’s little wonder, then, that Moyes has identified the midfield zone as the area that needs immediate strengthening. Other rumoured targets would be a luxury, but the arrival of at least one central midfielder is desperately required.
Losing out on Thiago Alcantara comes as a double blow – not only have United failed to sign a highly promising young playmaker, but his departure to Bayern Munich means their secondary target in that mould, Cesc Fabregas, is less likely to be allowed to leave the Nou Camp.

Reports suggest Moyes is targeting both Fabregas (5/2 to join United) and Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (priced at 2/1 to move to Old Trafford). There’s a similarity in the duo, in the sense they’re both able to play deep central midfield roles, or push further forward as a de facto striker – but they couldn’t be more different. Fellaini’s a predominantly physical player who bullies opponents with his strength, while Fabregas is a small, technical midfielder famed for his quick feet and intelligent passing.

The sheer difference in style, as well as the duo’s positional versatility, gives no clues as to precisely what Moyes believes he requires. Specific attributes are clearly considered less important than simply getting raw quality into the centre of the pitch, regardless of the shape or size of the new arrival. In the sense, that desperation sums up how understaffed United remain in such a key position – there’s no type of central midfielder that would be considered surplus to requirements.

Moyes is bound to appreciate Carrick’s intelligent ability to retain possession in deep positions and switch play quickly, while the continued uncertainty about Wayne Rooney’s future suggests Shinji Kagawa will get more opportunities in his favoured number ten position. That means the new arrival would presumably be asked to play an ‘in between’ role – alongside Carrick, but with more license to break forward into attack.

Moyes’ Everton midfield was always physical and feisty, and with neither Carrick nor Kagawa particularly strong players, the recruitment of a more powerful player makes sense. The performances of the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Javi Martinez and Arturo Vidal last season demonstrates that this type of all-round, technical but powerful box-to-box man is coming back into fashion, and Fellaini is an obvious fit, having worked with Moyes for so long.

There’s a danger that Moyes will be too cautious in his spending, having been accustomed to finding bargains and emerging talents at Everton for so long. United should be in a position to sign one of the world’s best – and if needed, must invest their entire transfer budget in central midfield.


2 Responses to “Manchester United’s Midfield Conundrum”
  1. RAHandler says:

    Gündogan is everything but a powerful box-to-box player. He is a small mobile playmaker in the mould of Xavi.

    • Milad says:

      Gundogan’s most obvious trait is his energy and drive from midfield, which is what I think Cox is referring to. Hes certainly not like Xavi, even if small in stature.

      But I would personally compare him more to a Modric than a Vidal.

      Fellaini would bring a good balance to the United midfield with his physicality balancing with Kagawa and Carrick’s skill. Fabregas/Thiago simply made less sense anyway in my eyes.

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