After the chaotic finale of the Manchester derby, a different kind of question, and purely a football one, presented itself: Where are the Premier League’s great midfielders?
It’s not an easy question to answer and the contributing factors are likely myriad. Football is box office and depends on tantalising showdowns but, for a top-two clash, Gareth Barry versus Michael Carrick would always be a poor undercard to Roy Keane taking on Patrick Vieira.
At the November unveiling of a statue in his honour at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson was honoured by the presence of a number of his old captains, including Bryan Robson. There was one notable absentee as Roy Keane failed to take up the invitation—or the olive branch—that was extended to him.
Keane was arguably Ferguson’s last great midfielder. Robson was his first general. When the United boss started building his empire, he wanted midfielders in his own image, players to enforce his will on his team and players who, like him, would not tolerate losing.
Keane and Robson represented part of an unbroken strand of Manchester United’s midfield DNA that stretches back to John Giles and Nobby Stiles in the Matt Busby era. They were physically and mentally domineering. They bullied, cajoled, harassed and intimidated not just their opponents, but their own teammates.
They never gave in and they were capable of superhuman acts of strength, endurance and courage—such as Keane’s awesome display in the 1999 Champions League semi-final second leg at Juventus—and could deliver a roughhouse message to opponents if it was called for. They could also spit venom at their own teammates if they felt performances were limp.
Ferguson replaced Robson with Keane but struggled to fill the gap left by the Irishman, just as he failed to settle on Peter Schmeichel’s heir. None of Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba or Anderson measured up. Michael Carrick performs an important, and often undervalued, role in the side but he is not the tour de force that Keane was.
The vaunted United youth system, meanwhile, has produced nothing since Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. It’s too early to say whether Tom Cleverley will succeed. The early signs are he is a decent player, but hardly a future captain.
So why then has Ferguson seemingly given up trying to find Keane’s midfield successor? When he had the chance to sign a player who looks like a throwback to the box-to-box, multi-jobbing midfielder, he watched Moussa Dembélé sign for Spurs. Instead, he brought in Robin van Persie and another attacking midfielder, Shinji Kagawa. The United boss often drops strikers back into midfield or wide positions. Scholes, at 37 years old, was brought out of retirement.
It might be a negative perpetuation of a wider trend. Last Saturday, after Chelsea’s Oriol Romeu went off injured, Rafa Benitez was left with only Ramires to lock down central midfield. Chelsea, one of the richest clubs in the world, rely heavily on Jon Obi Mikel, an average holding midfielder.
It’s an inversion of the nuclear dilemma: none of the top clubs have a midfield enforcer so none of them need one. Manchester City sold Nigel de Jong and replaced him with Javi Garcia, a relatively immobile presence leashed in front of City’s defence. Arsenal’s midfield is skilful but doesn’t strike fear into the heart of any opponent.
Maybe the players just aren’t there anymore, or the requirements are for a different type of player. The tightening up of laws to protect creative players means an evolution away from the street-fighting midfielder. Social, economic and technological changes have created environments in which kids no longer have to rely on only a football for entertainment. Players such as Giles learned their craft and honed their technique on the streets. It was compulsory for survival to learn to take, and dish out, rough treatment.
Street football, certainly in most Western societies, no longer pervades. The innovators now concentrate on the delivery of young players from early ages through the youth teams to seniors where they arrive as functionaries in a system that is king.
Why rely on trying to unearth another Roy Keane or Gennaro Gattuso when you can knock the rough edges off young players and refine their roles in a style that permeates through the entire club?
Spain and Germany are currently setting the bar in international and club football. The revolution and invention in Germany was borne out of necessity. Their humiliating exit at the group stage of Euro 2000 gave rise to sweeping changes in the structure of their clubs’ youth setups. Clubs were required to maintain academies and a certain number of the squad had to be home-grown. The result is the emergence of some of the most talented players in world football.
Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona set out the blueprint for football in the 21st Century. Barcelona signed Javier Mascherano, the archetypal midfield hard man, and turned him into a centre-back while Pep Guardiola left the midfield canvass to the artistes. It’s a similar story with Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund. The trend is to develop players for specific roles and the result is a decrease in the number of tasks they are required to perform.
There are less and less multi-jobbers. They perform specific functions. They are cogs in the machine rather than its engine, as Keane was.
Ferguson has said that his teams never use holding midfielders. It is unthinkable that United would have gone into battle against Juventus and Zinedine Zidane, for example, or domestically against Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, without all-rounders such as Keane, Scholes or Nicky Butt in the side. Now, United routinely swat aside Premier League clubs even though central midfield is the weakest unit in their side.
Maybe it’s cyclical. Maybe a great midfielder will emerge as English clubs realise they must revitalise youth setups to combat the challenge from the leading clubs in Germany and Spain.
The suspicion remains, though, that, just like the sweeper, the all-round, box-to-box midfield enforcer is a thing of the past.
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882