United still suffer central midfield problem
Darren Fletcher's return to the Manchester United midfield couldn't have been better timed for Sir Alex Ferguson
Here is a question for Manchester United fans. What is worse, a misfiring strikeforce, or a misfiring midfield? It is a tough question in the circumstances because last night against Galatasaray, United had both.
In the dying embers of the game, Javier Hernandez came on and had three chances to win the match. This was stunning profligacy. Three chances, all good, all missed in different ways, and all of them the sort of chances from which you would expect a return of 50 per cent if not more.
First, he received a delicate chip from Nani, but poor control meant that he got the ball caught under his feet. Then he fixed himself onto a pass that offered a dog-leg step round the ‘keeper, and then he went unchallenged under a high cross that invited an overhead. Now, overheads may be technically hard, but in the amount of unchallenged space that Hernandez was offered, he could have scored and he should at least have got it on target.
What a miserable cameo. And yet United fans will all know why the misfiring Mexican was brought on - because the dozy Dutchman had started to miss his chances too.
Because Robin van Persie is such a technically impressive player, when he makes a series of poor touches, his errors are magnified. In the second half at Old Trafford, his let his frustration all go and was immediately substituted. And so one striker on a poor day was substituted by another.
But before we go any further here, let me just make plain that this is not a column that can be filed away under the We Need Wayne campaign. Obviously United would love Wayne Rooney back, but all his wonderful skills would not fill the real vacuum.
In fact, Rooney’s absence at Old Trafford was negated by the brilliance of Shinji Kagawa. Against Galatasaray, the Japanese attacker was the best thing in United colours.
Kagawa is so special because his mind works as fast as his feet. Technically he is excellent, but his intelligence and imagination are outstanding. Of course he is different to Rooney; he is not maraudingly brilliant in the manner of his Scouser clubmate, but as a foil to a striker, Kagawa is excellent. So, no, United’s woes last night cannot be neatly referred to the injury list.
And they were indeed worryingly poor. Last season, United’s humbling in the Champions League was as a result of drawing games like this when the likes of Basle and Benfica went home celebrating the stealing of a point. At least last night United avoided a similar fate, albeit that it was a fate they deserved. And they can thank, again, the unwritten law that opposition teams are not allowed penalties at Old Trafford.
Galatasaray twice hit the woodwork and they had two decent penalty shouts ignored. That adds up to a fortunate evening for the home side.
And here is the thing. United want Rooney back; of course they do, but his arrival will not provide the medicine required. Yet it remains a possibility that another player’s return may be of even more benefit. And that is Darren Fletcher.
The Scot has endured a miserable year. He has been out of the team for more than 10 months suffering from Crohn’s disease, an intestinal problem so bad that it was feared that he might never play again. So it was a pleasure to see him come off the bench yesterday simply to acknowledge the level of his recovery.
However, his team needs him more than ever. Van Persie and Hernandez both endured a pretty wretched time up front yesterday, but theirs was a bad night rather than anything terminable. If you replayed the game tomorrow, they might have bagged goals in numbers.
The same, though, could not be said of the midfield. The Scholes-Carrick partnership is not fit for Champions League football and that is not going to change. That is not an insult to either player; the brilliance of Paul Scholes is beyond a debate, and Michael Carrick turned out to be United’s match-winner yesterday.
Nevertheless, as a midfield duo, they looked physically weak, they were over-run, they seemed an extravagance rather than a partnership to scare the rest of Europe. United clearly need a different type of player here and it may not matter that the transfer window has long closed.
Fletcher has had periods in his career when he has seemed essential to United. That was probably never more so the case than now.
This is a statement expressed wishfully. Fletcher might be the solution. What we know for sure is that United have a problem.