Keane and Viera: Among the finest midfield generals to have graced the Premier League
Having read Max Towle’s article Manchester United Transfers: 5 Central Midfielders Sir Alex Should Consider, I can safely say I agree that all the players suggested would boost the midfield, Strootman in particular. Conversely though, regardless of what I, the fans and the media have to offer to this debate, I can’t see Alex Ferguson bucking what has been a very successful trend.
For the past two summers—and possibly even further back—most fans and pundits have been adamant that Manchester United are lacking a ball-winner in midfield.
They want a box-to-box engine: brimming with aggression and desire, the type of player that Roy Keane and Patrick Viera typified throughout their careers. Both players are correctly lauded as two of the best midfield men the Premier League has seen—unsurprising, given the rarity of such dominating figures with enough ability to match their hunger.
Ferguson will know better than anybody the importance of having a man like Roy Keane in his side. Every great attacking midfielder needs an anchor from which to swing themselves across the pitch, a teammate who they can rely on to supply the ball and also to win it back.
Messi has Xavi; Zidane had Makelele; Pele had Gerson, and so on. Even when not flying among the legends of the game it is clear how important having the base-man is; Scott Parker, while not the most gifted of players, was integral to Tottenham Hotspur getting as far in the Champions League as they did through his strong tackling and unflappable demeanour.
So, why do United need new blood in the middle?
Many United fans I know say that the team haven’t signed a player worthy of filling Bryan Robson and Roy Keane’s boots since the Irishman left in 2005, so I’m guessing that discounts Paul Scholes, who was already at the club when Keane arrived. However, United’s success rate since then suggests otherwise.
2004-05 was a bad year for United. Chelsea and Arsenal had cleaned up domestically, the club had lost their captain and talisman as well as finishing with no silverware, and the "Fergie is losing it" brigade were in full voice.
They fared little better in 2005-06, crossing the line with only the League Cup to show for it, while trying to put the embarrassment of finishing bottom of the Champions League group stage behind them. Even seasoned sports columnists were blowing out the candle on Ferguson’s tenure.
I don’t need to give you a play-by-play of what has gone on since then, because if you are reading this you are probably well aware that United went on to win the European Cup and the World Club Championship three years later.
Owen Hargreaves, before he succumbed to persistent knee problems, played a strong role in these years. While Ronaldo got the star billing with all his twists and flicks and theatrics, Hargreaves battled tirelessly away, providing the defence with a buffer and the attackers with the ball, all to a very consistent level. Who knows, if he wasn’t so physically hindered he may have gone on to draw far higher recognition than he actually gets.
Does Tom Cleverley have the potential to be United's dominant midfielder?
From the signing of Hargreaves we can see that as soon as Keane moved on, Ferguson addressed the situation and filled the vacancy very quickly. The difference between that signing and others since is that Hargreaves had European experience with Bayern Munich and was a proven talent—an area in which Anderson, Cleverly and co. are sorely lacking.
It was foolish for people to suggest in 2005 and at the end of last season that the game was leaving the interminable Glaswegian behind. That United currently head the table by 12 points means I am forced to look for adjectives that get the point across more succinctly than "foolish."
So perhaps we could look at it another way; perhaps Ferguson is leaving football behind?
That would be an easy explanation for the way this season is going. After all, how can a team so widely described as relatively average (except by Mr. Ferguson, of course) be schooling the league like they are? It is far-fetched at this stage to even consider that they might achieve it, but the prospect of another treble is turning even the veteran head of Sir Alex.
Regardless of how it finishes, the fact remains that United are one of only a few teams in Europe still likely to challenge for such an honour this season. Take into account that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and AC Milan don't have that luxury, and it seems that little bit more impressive, especially for a supposedly average team with no midfield.
As mentioned before, for all Hargreaves’ sweat and toil, the main powers behind the 2008 triumph were Ronaldo, and only slightly behind him, Wayne Rooney.
When Ronaldo left it was thought that United would pale in comparison, especially with Hargreaves now feeling the years catching up. But Rooney stepped up to the mark and assumed the talisman role for himself, leading from the front.
It appears that is how Ferguson likes to play the game these days. You only have to look at the players brought in since Hargreaves ceased to be a regular. The last high-profile player over the age of 23 that Ferguson brought into midfield was…Owen Hargreaves.
In fact, if you go right back through the Fergie era, it is evident that the Scot has a clear preference for wingers and forwards over traditional midfielders.
There is some truth when those United fans say that the only true box-to-box players since 1986 have been Robson and Keane. Scholes is in there, though he can hardly be described as a ball-winner, while Hargreaves was of a slightly different ilk. It's quite startling, considering the lists of great midfielders that have played for other top clubs during this time period.
So, if Ferguson has only ever bought two natural ball-winners in his time at Old Trafford—bearing in mind that Robson arrived under Ron Atkinson—judging by his trophy cabinet, why would he change that policy now?
There is no need for Wesley Sneijder, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Kevin Strootman. "The Boss" gave his opinion on United’s midfield prospects months ago, stating his belief in Tom Cleverley: “I think he’s special” (via guardian.co.uk).
As it is sometimes so difficult to believe for those too young to remember, even Roy Keane was young and naive once.
Cleverley, who is a product of the Bradford and United academies and therefore cost next to nothing, is the player who seems most likely to take the mantle that Keane, Robson and Hargreaves left behind.
While he often plays higher up the pitch than his predecessors tended to, he is the same type of box-to-box, tough-tackling workhorse that made Roy Keane so important to his team. Coupled with an improving eye for goal, a delicate touch and deft passing ability, Cleverley’s boundless energy can drive United forward for years to come, providing he fulfills his potential.
Ferguson doesn’t buy on the spur of the moment. United have all but done away with the traditional four-four-two they were once inextricably linked with and replaced it with attack-centred roaming diamonds. With Michael Carrick performing well in front of the defence and Cleverley making strides in front of him, Ferguson has a midfield that, at the very least, can deliver passes on a sixpence.
Behind Cleverley wait the promising Nick Powell, Anderson—who is nowhere near the money paid for him but still relatively young—the bulldog-like Ryan Tunnicliffe, and of course, an army of undergraduates in the academy.
By bringing in a big name, the manager may only hinder the development of the younger players.
Fergie’s decision to start most games this season with four designated forwards is a signal of the changing times at Old Trafford. Sure, wingers still get in there, but they are being forced to adapt their game in order to fit into the new system, which has Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney as its focal point.
We can see that United have quality in midfield, perhaps not to the same degree as other teams, but that imbalance is being levelled out by the prolificacy of the attack. With a rock of a captain holding the back in Nemanja Vidic and a stellar front line which includes youth and experience, surely it can’t be long before the midfield catches up? If it does, this will be a monster of a team.
Maybe what United fans mean when they lament for Keane and Robson is that they miss having a born leader in the middle of the pitch. They want a ball-winning captain with limitless energy who will drive the team and score important goals while he’s at it, the kind of player that Jack Wilshere will undoubtedly be if things go smoothly. In Cleverley they have all that, just not yet at such an assured level.
Oh, and of course he isn’t the captain…yet.
It doesn’t matter though. As far as Ferguson is concerned, all the articles, television debates and press conferences are falling on deaf ears. On past experience, I’ll go out on a limb and say he probably knows what he’s doing.