During the Fergie era of Manchester United’s history, the squad has always boasted a plethora of world-class midfielders.
We hear it every week from pundits, but it is integral to success to have a strong ‘spine’; that being the core of players that run from goalkeeper to centre forward, and perhaps none are as important as the central midfielder. They’re the second line of attack, the first line of defence, and nearly all the play in a football match goes through them.
In the mid-to-late '80s and early '90s the roost was ruled by Bryan Robson, whose enthusiasm for the game was summed up by this quote: “Money wasn't my main motivation. I simply wanted to be a winner.” Continuing in his wake was the dogged determination of Paul Ince.
Throughout the '90s, the United midfield was bursting with talent, ingenuity and graft. Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane were about as good as it got for any midfield. Keano provided the aggression, the determination and that indefatigable desire to win.
Nicky Butt was of a similar mould; tough in the tackle and ever-dependent. Scholesy was the best passer of a ball I have ever seen; a 10-yard ball, a 60-yard ping; he made it all look simple. There is an argument to say the mercurial genius King Eric was a midfielder, so add him to the list if you like, but refrain from listing his plaudits as they would go on forever.
As the decade progressed and the millennium passed, United’s midfield pairing remained as strong as ever and was largely down the servitude of Keane and Scholes. Veron came; he floundered, found it hard to break into the starting XI consistently, and left.
Kleberson spent more time on the operating table than the pitch and the less said about Eric Djemba-Djemba, the better. And when Keano finally hung up his boots, United were quick to fill them. Though not as dynamic nor as committed, Michael Carrick slotted into the team confidently, providing a perfect foil for the creative exploits of the ‘Ginger Prince.’
Cue then the arrival of Darren Fletcher, long lauded as the next David Beckham, but in actuality, was more like the man with the iron lungs. Firm in the tackle and with an engine that runs all day, as well as a keen sense of footballing intelligence; Fletcher has been as firm a fixture in the United starting line-up for many years.
With four Premiership titles in five years and three Champions League finals (and one winner) United’s dominance seems as though it could go on some time longer. But with Scholes gone, Carrick warming the bench and Fletcher only just returning from a serious virus that has kept him out since March, the United midfield is looking a little shaky.
Cleverley looks a sharp little fellow, astute on the ball and with an eye for a pass, but he needs to toughen up, and arguably that will come with experience. But Anderson is the weak link for me. He showed promise when he first arrived, making 38 appearances in the 2007/08 season and helping United to the league title and European Cup, impressing fans not with the expected Brazilian flair, but with an industry and robustness that belied his nationality.
Since then, he has found it hard to slot into the first team, being benched largely for the likes of Fletcher and Carrick, until now, where it seems like due to a large proportion of the United midfield either, retiring (Scholes), struggling with injury (Fletcher) or generally putting in a string of lacklustre performances (Carrick), he has found himself with a starting berth. And here’s where my problems lie.
Carrick has neither the aggression and positional awareness to make a great defensive mid, nor the creativity and ball skills to make a sterling playmaker. Cleverley needs time to mature and I don’t feel is ready to excel in the biggest games. Gibson’s ship seems to have sailed; he is too naive in his play.
Most United fans’ opinion is that we need a creative midfielder, an opinion I find myself agreeing with. Having a ‘Sneijder’ in the team can only help Rooney and Hernandez.
But then I find myself thinking, we look mighty strong going forward this year. Rooney has been both banging them in and dropping deep to occupy the space between midfield and attack, where he assumes the role of playmaker.
Couple this with the dribbling and crossing ability that Nani and Young both possess, and United have an extremely potent attacking force; 24 goals from seven league games is testament to that.
No, what we need is a battling, tackling, ‘throw-themselves-at-every-ball’ kind of midfielder to help shelter a defence that can look inexperienced when Vidic doesn’t play. Believe me, I have huge faith in Jones and Smalling, but a couple of guys to dominate the centre of the park would ease the strain a little. Fletcher is one, but I can’t help thinking we need two.
Step into the frame Daniele De Rossi. The Roma hardman’s contract expires at the end of the season and, though a lifelong Giallorossi fan, he hasn’t committed to a new one, allegedly holding out for a more lucrative deal from the club’s new owners. A little bit of shrewdness is required.
Step in, offer him something he can’t refuse and welcome into the team one of the most rounded footballers I’ve seen in recent years. He is a serious box-to-box midfielder. He can tackle, he can pass, he can head, he can ping a ball 40 yards and he scores a fair few for a defensive mid, too.
Couple this with an inextinguishable desire to win, a fiery temperament and an aura that exudes pure dominance and you have some player. Never mind the fact that Roma generalissimo Francesco Totti has nicknamed him ‘Capitan Futuro’ (Future Captain).
And all this for nothing? Could there be a better deal? Sure, he happens to swing the odd elbow and steam into challenges with the intensity of a freight train, but no one at United complained when Gaby Heinze did the same, in fact, United fans voted him Matt Busby Player of the Year!
So, United could do with a bit of cover for a team that is still learning the game, and I feel there is no one more appropriate to guide them along than De Rossi. He is a leader and he is an exceptionally talented player; in days where flash forwards like Ronaldo, Aguero and Dzeko are fetching tens and tens of millions, it would be refreshing to see United grab a genuine world-class footballer without breaking the bank.