Manchester United's midfield—or lack of it—is a troublesome issue. Sir Alex Ferguson managed to leave the club on a high having brought home their 20th league title last season. He did it with ease, finishing the season 11 points clear of second-placed Manchester City. How, then, has David Moyes struggled so much with the exact same midfield?
United are currently seventh in the Premier League, 11 points behind leaders Arsenal. They've struggled for good form all season, suffering disruptive defeats every now and again and even lost their first three games of 2014.
Many have pinned their problems on their weakness in the middle of the park. Michael Carrick recently returned from injury after missing seven games throughout November and December. The Englishman has been a key figure in United's midfield for years and his absence was felt.
Moyes has tried several different pairs in midfield: Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones; Giggs and summer signing Marouane Fellaini; Fellaini and Tom Cleverley, and even more. None seemed to have worked yet.
Why, though? These players—Fellaini aside—strolled to the league title last season. Using statistics from Squawka, I'll try to solve this puzzling question.
Something United didn't lack last season was creativity and Robin van Persie thrived from it. He won the Golden Boot with a total of 26 goals and pretty much won the title by himself. Last season, United's central midfielders (Carrick, Giggs, Cleverley, Anderson, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher) created a total of 103 chances combined. That's an average of 2.7 created chances per game coming from central midfielders.
This season (after 21 games), the same players, but with Fellaini in place of Scholes have created 35, an average of 1.6 chances created per game. That's a big difference over a season as, if the average stays at the same figure, after 38 games this season, United's central midfielders will have created just 60 chances.
That is a massive difference in such a short space of time and probably the reason why Moyes is struggling so much in his first season at the helm.
Despite Carrick missing seven matches and known for playing a slightly deeper role in midfield, he is by far and away their most creative central midfielder, having created 14 chances this season. Giggs and Cleverley both have seven each, while the £27 million Fellaini has just one created chance to his name.
Those figures are, quite frankly, terrible. Moyes needs to find a spark from somewhere otherwise they will continue to struggle to create from midfield.
The creativity has come from the wings this season with more influence put into creating from the full-backs and wingers by Moyes. This is proven by the fact they've crossed the ball more than any other side in the Premier League, with 553, an average of 26 per game.
However, even more striking was the total number of crosses by separate players. Leighton Baines' 353 was 61 more than anyone else in the league.
This is clearly where United's central midfield creative problems lie. Moyes is more keen to try and create chances from out wide rather than from central areas. The team's results are suffering because of it, so the Scot may need to re-think his strategy or he can wave goodbye to Champions League qualification.
United's central midfield is struggling to cope with constant pressure and attacking runs beyond them. Their tackling statistics aren't great when you consider that Tom Cleverley (29) currently has more successful tackles than the rest of United's central midfielders.
Also, the champions have made more defensive actions than any other team in the league. Their total of 1282, including blocks, clearances and interceptions is more than anyone else—a worrying stat.
Their clearances (854) are more than any other team which suggests there is too much pressure on their defence—something the midfielders should be preventing. If we switch to last season, United finished 10th in the rankings list for the total number of defensive actions. Again, another indication that Moyes is having a lot of trouble constructing a strong midfield.
In terms of defensive work by the midfielders, Carrick has shone and is by far and away United's best in this department. He has completed 46 interceptions, which is the same number as Fellaini, Cleverley and Anderson combined. He's also won 19 tackles which is more than Fellaini, Anderson, Giggs and Fletcher.
Cleverley is often quite sloppy when making tackles, too, committing 25 fouls in the central areas of the pitch. To put that into context, Carrick, Fellaini, Giggs and Anderson combined equate to 19 fouls in the same areas of the pitch.
Moyes really does have a problem on his hands here. His midfielders are not only failing to create chances, but they're not providing sufficient defence support to help out the back four and the goalkeeper. The return to fitness of Darren Fletcher may aid that cause, though, but he is still some way off hitting the form he was in during 2008 when he was, possibly, United's best central midfielder.
How to Solve the Problems?
Moyes must recruit some more midfielders, and not in the mould of Fellaini who cost the club a mind-boggling £27m. The Scot has been seen at a recent Juventus match with his eyes, apparently, on Claudio Marchisio. The Italian would add some creativity to the midfield but Moyes will not benefit from that unless he changes his style and reduces the number of the crosses his side attempt per match.
If he can focus the play to more central areas, his midfield could thrive—as could Marchisio, should he sign. It may be unlikely that he'll make the trip from Turin to Manchester but it seems that Moyes is willing to try. He must be willing to try and play his attacks through central midfield, though, otherwise van Persie is likely to carry on struggling.
To prove how rarely they attack through central areas you just have to look at the number of through balls the team have played. Wayne Rooney leads the way with 10 (Philippe Coutinho leads the EPL with 32).
Giggs has made just two through balls all season; Anderson, Fellaini and Fletcher all have one each and Carrick is yet to make one. That's staggering and another big reason why United's midfield is struggling to make an impact this season.
United haven't bought a starting central midfielder for almost seven years since they signed Anderson and Owen Hargreaves in July 2007. Nick Powell is the only noticeable central midfielder purchased since then, but he isn't a regular starter.
David Moyes has a big problem and needs to do three things: change his style of play to allow his central players to become more involved; buy a creative midfielder who can become the focal point at the top of midfield; and, finally, sort out their defensive issues in central areas by either buying a new defensive midfielder or hope Fletcher can recreate his form of old.
If the Scot cannot solve his midfield problem, there is no way he will be taking United into the Champions League next season. The top four seems a long way off if this isn't solved.