Where Are You Roy Keane: Midfield is Manchester United's Real Problem

damian crowtherCorrespondent IMay 31, 2009

ROME - MAY 27:  Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United looks dejected after they lost the UEFA Champions League Final match between Barcelona and Manchester United at the Stadio Olimpico on May 27, 2009 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The first aim of any team in any sport at the start of a season is to finish at the top. 

Anything else is a bonus.

Manchester United won the Barclay's Premier League for the third year in a row (only the fifth team to achieve this feat after Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Liverpool and United themselves from 1999-2001).  They also won FIFA's increasingly important Club World Championship (check back this article in five years time when I predict it, the competition will be held during the summer in a World Cup format) and the League Cup.

Not to mention, United were runners up in the European Champions League and reached the FA Cup semis.  Not bad for a team which was comprehensively outclassed in Rome last Wednesday.

However, United has a problem that at times this year has been glossed over—the lack of a leader in the middle of the pitch. 

The defence may have been outstanding either side of the new year, but the team itself was not as fluent as last season.  The football was not as attractive.  The team did not score as many goals. 

Now this may be down to a number of reasons.  First, Rooney and Ronaldo were injured in the early part of the season and took time to recapture their form (Ronaldo especially).  Second, the purchase of Dimitar Berbatov upset the balance of the side.  Traditionally, United plays fast-flowing football but Berbatov slows up the play and at times has seemed like a £30M misfit.

I believe the main problem has been the lack of a dominating midfielder in the mold of Roy Keane.  Keane led by example and force of personality. At times he came across as a bully, but it was with the best of intentions.  His best years linked with Paul Scholes and wouldn't it have been interesting to see how Iniesta and Xavi would have coped with those two in their pomp?

Keane was a quality football player with a hard streak.  He could run box to box, scored important goals, and performed in the big matches. Last Wednesday nobody performed, particularly in the midfield were Barcelona dominated.

If you look at the team in last week's match, United initially started in a 4-3-3 but it became effectively a 4-5-1 as Rooney and Park dropped deeper to try and contain the Spaniards.  In the middle, Giggs, Carrick, and Anderson didn't close Barca down quickly enough (in fact did they close them down at all?).  Scholes came on and although he got booked, he attempted—in typical Paul Scholes fashion—the first challenge in the middle all night.

Before looking at Sir Alex Ferguson's options we must take into account the return of Owen Hargreaves and the suspension of Darren Fletcher.  I think both of them in the centre would give the Reds a more competitive midfield and certainly more needed aggression.  The question marks are will Hargreaves ever be 100 percent fit and can Fletcher continue his development to become a world class player?

Scholes and Giggs are coming to the end of their careers.  Anderson is young but next season could be make or break for him. Gibson may have the potential but again is very young and not really proven. I have high hopes for him. 

So the question marks continue for next year and if United wants to retain its title and regain the Champions League, then Fergie has to buy.  Midfield options are numerous but only the best will do.  Gerrard will not leave Liverpool considering the last player to move down the east lancs road was in the early 60s.  I don't see that happening.  Iniesta and Xavi won't leave Spain either and why should they?  

The best option is someone United missed out on before: Michael Essien. 

Essien is young, versatile, aggressive, has a great engine and most importantly can play football. 

Will Chelsea sell him?  Everyone has their price but to fund it how about the following scenario;  sell Berbatov back to Spurs for circa £20M, don't buy Tevez (saving £25M), sell Nani and Carrick for approx £25M. 

Offer Chelsea £30M for Essien and Lyon £27 for Benzema.  Net cost £7M.  If either Chelsea or Lyon want more then with a transfer kitty of approx £25M you could up either bid to the required level.

That would leave the following team for next season:

Van der Saar/Foster

Rafael/Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra

Fletcher, Hargreaves, Essien

Ronaldo, Rooney, and Benzema

Seems like the depth of the squad will still be OK and you know Rooney will play in his natural position.