United can not continue to rely on 37 year-old Paul Scholes to command the midfield.
With the imminent capture of Shinji Kagawa, United have made a solid first signing of the summer. Kagawa is a true champion, having won back-to-back titles with Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga. He comes to United with a lot of top-flight experience and at 23 years of age has plenty of time to develop into a player in the Manchester United image.
Talk of Manchester United “settling” for second-best or being forced into the move because of financial constraints is massively wide of the mark. Shinja Kagawa is a top-quality prospect who has already achieved a respectable trophy haul in his short career. He would improve any team.
Able to play both on the flank and down the middle, what Kagawa immediately brings to the team is his playmaking ability. For far too long, United have been too reliant on Wayne Rooney to be the creative talisman in the offensive third of the field. This certainly shows in games where Rooney is deployed as the lone striker.
With 13 league goals and eight assists last campaign, Kagawa boasts an impressive playmaking record that he will only build upon when he arrives at Old Trafford. If I were to hazard a guess, I predict that Kagawa will end up being used in the centre of the park; with Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young all playing well at different points of the previous season, United certainly are not lacking options on the flanks.
Yet I still believe that the key signing must make this summer is an anchor in the centre of midfield. There is no point building arms as strong as tree trunks if your spine is weak.
Sir Alex Ferguson seems pretty set in his ways tactically. In matches where he expects to dominate possession he fields United in a 4-4-2 formation with Wayne Rooney sitting deeper than his strike partner to become a typical playmaking number 10. In Europe or potentially difficult games (the Manchester derby a recent example), the side becomes a 4-5-1 with an extra man (usually Ji-Sung Park or Ryan Giggs) deployed in midfield to help close down opposing midfielders more quickly.
In a recent article, Bleacher Report featured columnist Kyle Diller makes a persuasive argument that Ferguson may adapt to what is quickly becoming the go-to formation in European football this season with the 4-2-3-1 formation. Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid remain the outstanding example of this formation’s abilities, guiding his star-studded team to their first La Liga title in four seasons.
I remain unconvinced that Ferguson—a manager who is otherwise renowned for adapting his tactics to the modern game—will take this route, but time will tell. However United are fielded next season, one vital piece remains missing: a combative, holding, defensive midfielder.
Building a Core
Towards the end of last season, two players featured more regularly in the centre of the park than any other: Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. The pair became a core unit who played on a very familiar wave length, holding the ball up in the centre of the park and exchanging possession with those around them with neat, safe passing.
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The pair dominated the field whenever they played together and when the senior of the two did not play, Manchester United suffered. There is a no clearer example of this than United’s 1-0 defeat to Wigan, a game where Paul Scholes was not even named on the bench.
But let’s just get something absolutely clear: United should not be relying on Scholes to command the field. He is 37 years old. He retired. The idea that United do not have a defensive-minded midfielder to play alongside the deep-lying playmaker Michael Carrick is quite frankly laughable.
He has the muscular physique, confidence on the ball and range of passing that befits a top class elite prospect. Ferguson’s decision to omit the player from more first-team responsibilities remains one of the most frustrating aspects of this season, but I am sure the manager had good reason. I just hope the club does not come to lament it.
Anderson is not an option to sit deep in the park (as he was often early in the season), nor is Tom Cleverley. The latter will no doubt find tough, but healthy competition, in Shinji Kagawa for an offensive playmaking role, or commandeer one of the three attacking midfield positions should United adapt to a 4-2-3-1 system.
With Pogba leaving, United are left with Scholes, Carrick, the long-term fitness worry Darren Fletcher and rookie Ryan Tunnicliffe as the remaining defensive midfielders. As I have said, Scholes should be enjoying a happy retirement now and Tunnicliffe will probably end out on loan. Fletcher may return shortly, but who knows if he will ever be the same player?
That leaves Carrick, a player who had a fantastic campaign this last season, as United's sole mid-to-long term defensive midfield option.
What United must do now is find an elite prospect to come in and develop in the centre of the park. Yann M’Vila and Javi Martinez remain the two outstanding candidates in European football. No doubt there are gems like Pogba hidden out there, but United need to find the complete article who can immediately come in and develop alongside the veterans Scholes and Carrick.
But of course, as we witnessed with the whole Eden Hazard debacle, Manchester United cannot and should not compete with the ludicrous wage packets offered by clubs with cash to burn. Strict wage structuring not only helps maintain hunger within the ranks but it also helps keep finances at a reasonable level, something Manchester United must continue to do while they are in debt and as UEFA introduce Financial Fair Play regulations.
United can throw as much money as they like at attacking options—players to ease the burden on Rooney and to replace the outgoing Berbatov and Owen—but if there is not a solid core in the centre of the park, United will continue to be defeated by teams that boast incredible midfield options. As United face an uncertain financial landscape in the coming years it is imperative that they find the midfield general to lead them in the next decade and that they find him soon.