Is it possible for a great team to have a mediocre midfield?
The question might concern every fan who looks at United’s current midfield and trembles. United's limitations in the centre are suddenly all the media can talk about in the post-Ronaldo era.
Quiet whispers became thunderous doubts in the aftermath of United’s dismal efforts to contain Barcelona’s midfield power in the Champions League final last May. A lasting memory of the match is of United’s bench, hunched shouldered to a man, powerless in the presence of what later came to be described as a midfield master class from Xavi and Iniesta.
During a painful 90 minutes examination, Carrick, Anderson and Giggs looked decidedly ordinary in such exalted company. The search was on for a midfielder of authority and presence who would spare the Red machine embarrassment next time around.
Fast forward three months and Sir Alex shows no sign of heeding the popular wisdom nor accepting the proposed remedy. With less than a week to go before the summer transfer deadline and Owen Hargreaves still four months away from a full recovery, the manager has refused to stiffen his central midfield.
Perhaps, the manager reasons that his midfield resources—and add to the equation Fletcher, Gibson and Scholes—have rewarded him handsomely with three titles in a row and a Champions League bauble too.
Crisis? What crisis, the manager might claim!
But one man’s stubbornness is another’s blind refusal to accept, in Arsene Wenger’s words, that the wife at home is not the prettiest in the street.
Put simply, imagine how much more effective United would be if Ferguson had at his disposal midfielders of genuine authority and reputation who looked like they could find the way to goal without a Sat Nav system?
The iconic goalscoring midfielder is as much in the United tradition as the nippy winger, the marauding fullback and the short of stature centre forward. Every Red machine should have one!
In the 1970’s when United were on the march with Coppell and Hill, it was Gerry Daly and that other Diddyman Lou Macari, who set the tone in midfield. Macari was so much the fans’ favourite that he had his own self-named chippy in Stretford.
Then came Ray “The Crab” Wilkins, Arnold Muhren, Remi Moses, and the epitome of the iconic midfielder Bryan Robson; a player so good, he carried the club’s fortunes for more years than anyone dare imagine.
When Robbo’s body could take no more, Ferguson brought in the ‘Guv’nor’ Paul Ince and then of course, Roy Keane. The diminutive genius Paul Scholes soon settled alongside the Irish legend, to be joined by the gifted David Beckham and the talismanic Ryan Giggs. This foursome soon completed English football’s finest midfield quartet since the great Liverpool side of the late 1970’s.
And then? Nothing.
When Keane’s curmudgeonly nature made him persona non grata at Old Trafford, Sir Alex brought in Michael Carrick and the rot set in.
Carrick is a good player and his arrival triggered a trophy haul that may not easily be repeated but it is impossible to imagine him garnering the sort of headlines claimed on a weekly basis by Robson in his prime. To Robbo’s Captain Marvel, Carrick is Mr. Neat And Tidy.
The former Spurs player lacks the force of character to rank alongside the legends of yore. He isn’t the type to, in the realm of cliché, “grab a game by the scruff of its neck” like Keane did against Juventus in 1999, selflessly playing for the team’s final qualification, knowing full well that he would play no part in those very proceedings.
Some might say that such a player is no longer necessary. United have done rather well these past three years without a clenched-fisted, bulldog-spirited midfield icon. For all the Gerrards of Liverpool, the Lampards of Chelsea and the Fabregas of Arsenal, it is the United of Carrick, Fletcher and the veterans Scholes and Giggs that collects the top trophies year after year without an iconic midfielder anywhere to be found.
So what’s the fuss? If it ain't broke etcetera, etcetera!
It may be that United have been lucky these past years, heavily reliant on an overachieving winger and un-United defensive rigour. That luck could run out sooner rather than later. If Ferguson fails to act and quickly, the Barcelona debacle may come to be seen as a first symptom of a deeper malaise.
Ronaldo’s goal rush camouflaged United’s soft underbelly. Now he has moved on and one of the iron laws of football, defied these past three years, could reassert itself with a vengeance.
Great teams have solid spines. Goalkeeper, central defenders, central midfielders and a centre forward of repute. The World Cup-winning England team of 1966 fit this template perfectly. Brazil 1970 had class everywhere. The Brazil of 1982 lacked a mercurial central striker, as did the France side of 1998 but those teams were blessed by an overabundance of iconic midfielders. Socrates and Falco in Spain found their equivalent some 16 years later in Zidane, a giant on home soil.
The backbone of the current United side is great in defence and was sublime in attack when Ronaldo was a Red, but the middle is now no more than adequate. The statistics don’t lie. The goals amassed by Carrick, Park, Anderson, Scholes, Giggs and Fletcher barely cover Lampard’s or Gerrard’s seasonal total. This should be a major source for concern of a team tasked with glory or bust.
With Ronaldo in Madrid, teams will take on United with a simple game plan to foil the champions. Stop Rooney, pen back Evra and choke the Red midfield supply lines and United will struggle to score, especially now that Ferguson favours 4-4-2. After all, if Rooney doesn’t hit the target and Berbatov is distracted, where is the goal threat?
Surely, Ferguson and his Carrington coaches have recognised this weakness and are working towards a solution. It may also be true that help is to immediately to hand. Could it be that the eventual conversion of Wayne Rooney into an attacking midfielder could give the club the iconic midfielder it has lacked for so long?