This week Manchester United fans were given some news that was very sad but not unexpected. A club statement read: “Darren Fletcher will be unavailable for the remainder of this season having undergone surgery to resolve his Ulcerative Colitis condition.”
The condition has troubled Fletcher for a long time. Even before he took an extended break from the game in December 2011, Fletcher was missing a lot of football, and when he was playing, something looked amiss.
This season saw Fletcher’s comeback, but as he ended up spending more time on the bench than the pitch, it soon became apparent that all was still not well. Now the Scottish international midfielder is out until the end of the season at least, so what does that mean for Manchester United?
It has long been a complaint from fans at Old Trafford that the club and Sir Alex Ferguson have been guilty of neglecting the centre of midfield. While the squad’s defence and attack have seen plenty of investment, the midfield has been left curiously dormant. In particular, it has been a concern that United lack a defensive presence in the middle of the park.
For many seasons Manchester United struggled to fill the hole left by Roy Keane. Eventually, the combination of Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick went some way to plugging that gap, and the Premier League titles began to flow again.
Fletcher provided the energy. Industriously pressing the opposition at every opportunity, Fletcher was key to breaking down opposition attacks but also knew how to how to use the ball once he got it, boasting a high pass-completion rate.
Alongside him, Michael Carrick would sit deep and dictate play. Carrick is also a good player defensively, though it is his positioning and powers of interception that are his primary tools when it comes to breaking opposition possession. Between them, Fletcher and Carrick's skill sets were complementary and provided United with an extremely solid base in the centre of the pitch.
Without Fletcher, Carrick looks exposed.
United are still getting results by nature of the fact that they are so good going forward, but they have only kept seven clean sheets in 32 appearances in all competitions this season. It might be good enough for the Premier League title this season, but how many people seriously think that this team can compete in the Champions League?
The likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Tom Cleverley and Anderson just don't have the defensive capabilities to properly protect the back four behind them. Ferguson does have the option of playing Phil Jones in central midfield. Until the end of the season, that might be the best option alongside Carrick, when Ferguson feels that the team needs extra protection.
It is not, however, a long-term solution, with central defence looking like Jones' eventual destination. And the youngster's development is not being helped by continually being employed in different positions, like some kind of high-class John O'Shea.
No, the time has come for Ferguson to bite the bullet and sign a new midfielder.
There is a sense that he has delayed doing this out of loyalty to Fletcher and the hope that the gritty midfielder would soon be back to his best. Facts have to be faced. Fletcher is out until the end of the season at least, and sadly, there are no guarantees that he will return to the level at which he once performed so consistently.
Ferguson has stated that he won't buy anyone in January. It's possible that he might reconsider his position following the news of Fletcher's operation, but it would be more like Ferguson to do his business in the summer.
Even if Fletcher does come back to his best, he will be 29 in two weeks' time. Carrick turns 32 this summer. It's time for Ferguson to find the next generation of midfield protectors for Manchester United.