Manchester United Must Retool in Central Midfield, but with Which Players?
It’s the second week of April, and Ryan Giggs has started four of Manchester United’s last eight matches in the centre of midfield—a run that has included Monday’s derby loss to Manchester City and the second leg of the Red Devils’ Champions League appointment with Real Madrid.
This is not ideal.
Yes, Giggs is a United legend and even at 39 has more to offer the club with which he has won 12 titles, four FA Cups and a pair of Champions League crowns. But by no means should his contributions be of the game in, game out variety.
And that he is being picked for consistent starts in the centre of the park at the most important time of the season would seem to suggest United have a very serious problem on their hands—a lack of ability at the heart of midfield that is only a Michael Carrick injury away from becoming a disaster.
Thankfully for them, United have the title all but sewn up with seven matches to play, but what about next season?
Surely Sir Alex Ferguson won’t be anticipating another campaign where Giggs is a preferred option alongside Carrick. But with Paul Scholes’ career winding down and Darren Fletcher’s health concerns still unresolved—never mind the troublingly inconsistent performances of Anderson and Tom Cleverley—the United boss would seem to have little choice.
That is, unless he does some retooling in the summer.
A midfield makeover should be Ferguson’s top priority in July and August, and the next few slides will reveal some players who could make his problem go away ahead of next season.
PSV Eindoven pulled to within three points of Eredivisie leaders Ajax following a 3-1 win away to Willem II on Saturday, and Kevin Strootman has been one of the key players in their late title charge.
The 23-year-old, who joined PSV from Utrecht for €13 million in 2011, has become one of the top central midfielders in the Netherlands this season while also endearing himself to national team manager Louis van Gaal.
Strootman has started each of the Dutch side’s six World Cup qualifiers—all wins—and, perhaps most impressively, has minimized the effect of losing Mark van Bommel to international retirement and Nigel de Jong to injury.
Similar in stature to Michael Carrick, he would likely be seen more as a replacement for the 31-year-old than midfield partner, although his versatility would serve him well in the latter role as well.
United have lacked a midfield destroyer since Roy Keane’s exit in 2005, but as they’re unlikely to get a Sergio Busquets or Daniele de Rossi, Celtic’s Victor Wanyama might be the best available option.
Not that they’d really be settling.
Wanyama, 21, has become one of the most sought-after defensive midfielders in European football since his exceptional performance against Barcelona in the Champions League last November, and, after turning down a contract extension at Parkhead, will almost certainly be shopped during the summer transfer window.
Aggressive in the tackle and accurate with his first pass, the Kenya international would certainly fill a void at Old Trafford and would also seem to be one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most realistic transfer targets.
After struggling to settle at Real Madrid, Luka Modric could be shipped out of the Spanish capital less than a year after arriving there from Tottenham Hotspur.
Long on United’s wishlist, the 27-year-old was priced out of a switch to Old Trafford when Spurs chairman Daniel Levy played hardball with the Primera Division champions. But with Madrid’s presidential elections around the corner, the club is likely heading into a summer of turmoil and turnover, and Modric will be one of the first players shopped around.
He would still find a role at United, as their needs in the centre of the park haven’t changed a bit in the last few years. And with four seasons of Premier League football under his belt (in none of which he played fewer than 32 matches), his readjustment to the English game would likely be a smooth one.
He hasn’t even been at White Hart Lane a full season, but that might not stop Manchester United from taking a run at Moussa Dembele should Tottenham Hotspur fail to finish in the top four next month.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s prioritization of Robin van Persie last summer came at the expense of a handful of other transfer targets—among them Lucas Moura, who went to Paris Saint-Germain, and Dembele, who subsequently joined Spurs for £15 million. And while you can hardly fault the United manager for going so hard after the Dutch striker, the Belgium international was, and remains, among his ideal options in the centre of the park.
Extremely versatile and, at 25, entering the prime of his career, Dembele’s positional sense means he can close down an opponent without going in for a 50-50 tackle, and he has remarkable instinct going forward as well.
It just may happen.
Just this week Sir Alex Ferguson remarked that he considered Chelsea to be his side’s most serious threat over the next few seasons (ESPN), and in that regard poaching Lampard would serve a dual purpose.
On the one hand, it would give him the experience and nous he so values while adding depth in the centre of the park; on the other, it would snatch Chelsea’s top goalscorer away from Stamford Bridge.
The classic two-birds-with-one-stone signing.