It's the Midfield, Stupid!

nigel smithCorrespondent IJune 28, 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)

Losing Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez from a title winning squad has created Sir Alex's biggest selection headache since the summer of 2006.

Fans are restless. Great teams strengthen whilst strong rather than surrender their goalscorers to bitter rivals.

The supporters wait for word from the Old Trafford high command.  None emerges, so the press steps in to fill the void. Not a day passes without a new twist in United's summer hunt for new talent.

Is Wigan's Dave Whelan just pushing up the price tag on his want-away winger Antonio Valencia by claiming Real Madrid still have an interest in the player?

Are United really looking to bring back Giuseppe Rossi?

Is the Costa kid worthy of a bid or a trial?

This is just the faintly plausible speculation. Surely it is fanciful that the highly-rated 'saviour' Macheda is to be traded to Inter Milan. The rumoured £40 million bid to test the 'resolve' of Liverpool to hold onto Fernando Torres was nothing but a test of patience.

The media speculation is at its most intense however when hacks focus on Lyon's Karim Benzema. Will United really spend £35 million on the Lyon hotshot when all the signs are that he doesn't fancy Red Manchester in the slightest?

Benzema's foot-dragging at the prospect of a move to United and the whispers that he would prefer Arsenal if Spain's big guns don't return his agent's telephone calls, serve only to magnify the gamble Sir Alex would be taking in signing the Lyon forward.

Benzema's pedigree and talent are not in question. If he can maintain his progress and adapt to a different style of play and a tougher league environment, the French international could be a star, the marquee, big name, Mr. Right after Ronaldo.

But is he the right player right now for United? Would a new striker be a remedy for United's feared lack of punch next season, or would it simply impede the rich promise of Macheda and Welbeck?

Whilst that is the subject of bar room squabbles, what may emerge as far more telling is the view that by bolstering his midfield options, Sir Alex would navigate a faster and surer route to replacing the goals of Ronaldo and Tevez and maintaining his side's grip on domestic silverware.

The manager has had a year to prepare for the post-Ronaldo/Tevez future and might now be ready for a tactical redeployment which would see United mothballing the 4-4-2 formation in important matches in favour of a more pragmatic 4-5-1 system.

The manager could choose to field Rooney or Berbatov as his attacking point, although admittedly, the Bulgarian  is not best suited to the role. Alternatively, he could offer Macheda the opportunity to show he has the right stuff for the first team.

If the rumours are true, United could then field Valencia on the right of a five-man midfield. Alongside the Ecquador international could be Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher or Anderson.

Preferably, the manager would select Owen Hargreaves, to do the grafting in his midfield. However, the player' s knee surgery and his dismal injury record would suggest that a new battling midfielder be acquired. Lyon's Toulalan is a personal favourite. Please God, let it not be Lee Cattermole.

The last piece in the midfield puzzle would see 26-year-old Franck Ribery pulling the strings from a floating role on the left. Alas, some Glazer sophistry means that a player at the height of his powers cann not be pursued because of his age and the fear that United would not get their money back at the end of his contract.

Another two domestic titles and perhaps a Champions League winners' bauble would be sufficient compensation, it would seem. 

Of course, the manager could use the right-footed Rooney in the left-wing role and offer him a licence to roam. The evidence suggests, however, that the England international considers the position little more than a personal sacrifice of his talent.

The above midfield might allow United to recover from the loss of Tevez and Ronaldo's goals by insisting on greater team responsibility. It would also present a sturdy barrier to teams such as Barcelona with the wit and talent to take the game to United.

Ideally, Sir Alex could increase his options still further by purchasing a midfielder with box to box energy and an eye for goal. But then isn't every manager eager to find the new young Roy Keane?

In every sense, United will miss Ronaldo and Tevez. It is equally true that they will miss the subtlety and invention of the fading Giggs and the declining Scholes as much.

Only through a re-evaluation of tactics and personnel and a strengthening of midfield talent can the dreaded 'transition' be avoided next season.