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How Would Bryan Robson Fare in a Contemporary Manchester United XI?

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How Would Bryan Robson Fare in a Contemporary Manchester United XI?
Former Manchester United midfielder Bryan Robson (Photo courtesy of manchestereveningnews.co.uk)

Bryan Robson is widely remembered as one of the best talents that the English footballing system has ever produced. 

Having made 90 appearances for the English national team (netting an impressive 26 times), Robson has gone on to enjoy a relatively successful managerial career with the likes of Middlesbrough and West Brom.

Despite—as is the case with any brilliant player that goes into management (Kevin Keegan springs to mind)—these latter ups and downs at the helm of a side have somewhat sullied the image of the lean and pacey central midfielder who once captured crowds with his abilities, Robson's legacy still lives on today.

Namesake Sir Bobby Robson once said of Bryan that he was "the greatest talent that England has ever produced" during an interview at Italia 90.

So surely, then, a player of this caliber could breeze into a United side desperately lacking in central-midfield talent?

The answer to that question may be slightly more complicated than one would imagine.

It's crucial to recall that Robson comes from not only a completely different era of football, but from a different era of tactics.

As a box-to-box midfielder, Robson was fortunate to have come into the game during the peak of the classic 4-4-2 formation (which has dwindled into relative obscurity in recent years).

The clustering of four midfielders in the center of a team's lineup allowed players like Bryan to flow forward with attacking prowess without leaving his defense exposed.

A perfect example of this issue in the modern game is the dilemma of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard playing in the same England starting XI.

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard

Both players are primarily attacking in nature, and their desire to continuously push forward results in huge gaps being left in the England midfield at least once every game the duo play together.

In Robson's day, this would never have been an issue, with one of the other three midfielders covering the hole left by an attacking outburst.

As such, the central midfielder was allowed to roam forward and add a real goalscoring threat to a team (Robson scored 115 goals in the English top flight alone), as well as a defensive aspect when needed.

This densely packed midfield also gave Robson the freedom to track back and defend without the risk of a counterattack falling short of offensive numbers.

In the modern game, box-to-box midfielders are a dying breed—thanks primarily to the drastic shift in tactics, which has seen most teams adopt a policy of playing only three out-and-out midfielders.

The security, which would have once seen Robson able to roam the pitch so freely has been lost, with players now brought in to do "specialist" jobs.

While some "all-round" central midfielders do still exist (your Michael Essiens and Yaya Toures), in modern world football they have largely been replaced by utility players, with a special ability to play either a defensive or offensive role.

That's not to say that some players don't have the skill set to do both.

A perfect example of this would be Manchester United's current No. 1 transfer target, Cesc Fabregas.

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Cesc Fabregas

The Barca star has shown a versatility throughout his career to play in either the offensive or defensive central midfield role.

Despite now player as more of a winger-cum-striker for Barca, Cesc epitomizes the changes that have occurred in recent years.

Undoubtedly a couple of decades ago, the Spaniard would have been used as more of a Robson-esque man of attrition, sprinting from one penalty area to the next.

However, instead of this he is forced to compromise and play the specific role that the given situation calls for.

While this does mean that Cesc can be swapped from the attacking to the defensive (or vice versa) side of things in the middle of a game, at no point will he be asked to occupy both roles at once as Robson (and perhaps more recently Roy Keane) was asked to at United.

With the exit of the likes of Keane and Patrick Vieira from the Premier League, the game changed, with new policies being adopted that all but eliminated the out-and-out "pure" central midfielder.

So, back to the question at hand: How would Bryan Robson fare in the current United set up?

The answer is a complicated one.

Christopher Lee/Getty Images
The not-so-sprightly Robson playing a testimonial in 2006

While Robson was undoubtedly a talented player, and one of the best that United and England have seen for a while, his style of midfielding would not fit in with the current tactical mantra at United.

That's not to say that Robson wouldn't find himself a place in the side. In fact, he almost certainly would.

Only that place in the starting XI would not be in the same ilk as it was before.

Bryan could be utilized as either a solely defensive or offensive player, but we would never see the same stamina-machine that once took the footballing world by storm.

If United re-adopted the policy of a 4-4-2 then in this magical scenario, Robson would probably breeze into the first XI, embracing his old style of play.

However, with the way the game is today, he would be competing with these "specialist" attacking and defensive players for a place in the side. Would he be good enough to beat them out?

Almost certainly, in this writer's opinion—but at the cost of the playing style that made him globally respected.

Maybe one day the game will revert back to how it once was, but for now, the days of the Bryan Robson-style central midfielder are gone.

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