Manchester United claimed their 13th Premier League title on Monday and with not much else to play for, attentions will turn towards how the team can stay ahead of their rivals.
The summer transfer market is fast approaching and Sir Alex Ferguson will undoubtedly be looking for ways to improve his squad.
Here we take a look at Manchester United’s current midfield situation and where we are likely to see changes in next season’s line-up.
Ask most Manchester United fans the position that they would most like to strengthen, and chances are the response will be in midfield. The status of the centre of the park at Old Trafford has been widely discussed and well documented.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are not going to be around forever and probably have 20 to 25 games to offer in 2013/14. Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa are developing into very good players, but still needs time.
Deploying Phil Jones in a deep midfield role seems to have worked for man-marking assignments, but it isn’t a position that’s called for every week or that the player himself will wish to mature into.
Poor Darren Fletcher’s long-term availability is questionable, and Anderson, similarly, has struggled for fitness and form since his arrival six years ago and may be on his way out in the summer, if rumours are to be believed.
Of course, United have also lost Paul Pogba, who left for Juventus last summer and has since developed into a important player for them, and – before even that – seemed to have cut their losses on the hugely-talented Ravel Morrisson.
Only Michael Carrick seems to be a mainstay, but he is already 31-years-of-age and, in truth, could often do with a world-beater alongside him, as the lessons learned at the hands of Barcelona and Real Madrid have shown.
In short, many have expressed that it is a wonder that United have experienced the success that they have had when they arguably do not have a first-choice midfield pairing.
The answer is not as simple as acquiring a central midfielder, however; the type of central midfielder that Manchester United move for next will be indicative of the vision in which Ferguson wishes to mould what may be his last great team before his retirement.
Looking at his current options, it seems fair to say that most of his players are capable of playing deep roles – yet none of them are naturally defensive-minded.
Equally, Fletcher aside, any of his crop can play further up the pitch – but, Kagawa aside, none are playmakers in the style of one-time target Wesley Sneijder.
Ferguson must now make a decision; does he reinforce the solidity of a midfield that against strong opponents often been out-fought and out-thought? Or does he bring in a player who can pull all the strings and bring back some of the ‘fantasy’ missing from the team?
The answer may well lie in the availability of either type of player who would make a difference to the United’s strongest XI.
The ‘Number 8’, in the days before squad numbers, refers to a more attack-minded midfielder who is able to control the play of the entire team. His job is to dictate the pace and possession of the team, directly or indirectly setting up the forwards and looking to construct something sometimes out of nothing.
Fewer could be better targets in this regard than Real Madrid’s Luka Modric. The Croatian playmaker has had a difficult first season at the Bernabéu and, if Madrid should look to cash in another quality midfielder (as they did with Wesley Sneijder in 2009), Manchester United would be first in a long queue to attempt to secure Modric’s services.
Should Real Madrid not wish to do so, then should Chelsea not renew Frank Lampard’s contract, he may afford a couple of years of excellent service in a midfield that no longer carries the great goal threat it did when Paul Scholes was younger.
Third choice behind these two could well be Yohan Cabaye, with Newcastle United famously operating on a ‘buy low sell high’ principle under current owner Mike Ashely.
The little Frenchman has proved adept at structuring his team’s approach play, but the more sceptical may suggest that he wouldn’t offer an improvement on Michael Carrick.
Talk of Bastian Schweinsteiger at a time when he is captain of the most disciplined team in Europe and with Pep Guardiola coming in to become the Bavarian club’s manager is, it seems, entirely delusional.
In any case, the recent deployment of Wayne Rooney in an attacking midfield role might mean that a 'Number 8' may not be on Ferguson's shopping list at all, leaving a 'Number 6' as the more likely preference.
In days of yore, the ‘Number 6’ was the deepest lying midfielder, protecting his more attack-minded and usually more-skilful teammates from counter attacks and doing the defensive ‘dirty work’ around them. Classic examples of this indispensible player in recent times include Claude Makélélé, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, and Sergio Busquets.
Prior to his high-fee transfer to Bayern Munich, Javi Martìnez would have been the ideal option in this position, considering how few and far between world-class deep-lying midfielders are these days.
Looking closer at home, down the M28 in fact, and Marouane Fellaini fits the bill perfectly. With future over not just his own future but also his manager’s, David Moyes, and the club still unable to find an investor, the stature of the young Belgian finally seems to have outgrown his current surroundings.
Described as ‘unplayable’ by his own teammates and presenting a serious aerial threat, Ferguson may find him the ideal candidate to shore up a midfield that seems to these days lack a talisman while simultaneously offering a goal menace from the midfield currently not available.
Celtic’s Victor Wanyama is a name that has been thrown around quite a bit of late, but the Kenyan is largely unproven plying his trade north of the border and would represent as much of a prospect as the purchases of Kagawa and, even, Anderson have presented in the past.
The fact that he would be half the price of Fellaini, however, may mean he is a very realistic option for the Glazer-owned NYSE-listed company.
There are other midfielders who have been linked with a transfer to Old Trafford. Young and promising, they vary from Paris Saint-Germain’s Andrea Pirlo-clone, Marco Verratti, to Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantra.
Both clubs would be very unwilling to sell such promising players to a European competitor; however, PSV Eindhoven have a young gem in Kevin Strootman. Tall and strong with excellent leadership abilities that belie his 23 years, he is also a typically cultured Dutch midfielder who operates box to box.
What is certain is that the purchase of two central midfielders is out of the question. The above-mentioned conversion of Rooney into central attacking midfielder may provide a key not just as to the recruitment of a midfield minder over the summer but even a potential new tactical shape for 2013/14.
Michael Carrick's strong but silent showing this season cannot be ignored but neither can the lack of goal-threat and physical presence he represents.
In shifting to a central midfield three that allows Carrick to work in a deep-lying role alongside a box-to-box player that most clearly could be filled by Fellaini and behind a roaming Rooney, Ferguson may find that he has solved United's midfield crisis while accommodating the strengths of the players he already has at his disposal.
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