Manchester United: Rebuilding the midfield

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You must have been on a desert island or the space station if you don't think Manchester United's midfield needs completely rebuilding.

For all the loyalty that United fans feel towards arguably the greatest football manager of all time, his failure to sign any decent talent in midfield since Roy Keane's departure is inexcusable.

It is of course possible that he saw Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison as the future. In the latter case his tolerance and patience was misplaced. Morrison let "the gaffer" and himself down badly. He had to go.

There is some suggestion from insiders that the Pogba case was not as clear cut as it might appear. Undoubtedly the young man sought the rewards commensurate with his potential.

But it seems that the rigidity of United's pay structure at the time was the impediment. Sir Alex was unable to claim Pogba as a special case and he left. That situation has now clearly been remedied judging by the package that Adnan Januzaj was recently given. But the horse had already bolted and Pogba is set to be the best in the world.

Without the potential of Pogba and Morrison, brought up in the United style of playing under the tutelage of Rene Meulenstein, the midfield that David Moyes has inherited is clearly not fit for purpose.

While there can be no denying the class of Michael Carrick and the indefatigability of Darren Fletcher, neither has the pace to fit the style of play Moyes wants to play.

The modern midfielder must be able to attack as well as defend, with great technical ability and the drive to get from box to box all game. Xavi and Iniesta don't have great pace but they make up for this with technical ability in spades.

They also play a different way to the traditional Manchester United style. In fact someone like Tom Cleverley would better fit Barcelona than either Carrick or Fletcher.

Money must be spent this summer and the most urgent needs are midfield and defence. 

Here we examine how United's midfield might be remodelled.

Rebuilding United's midfield

While we previously reviewed the attacking players, there is inevitably some actual and potential spillover into midfield.

While United will probably never play the Barcelona way (more likely to emulate Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich if Moyes has anything to do with it), the whole of the attacking/midfield unit (with the possible exception of an outright "Number 9" like Falcao or Cavani) must have the technical ability, vision and willingness to be able to interchange and recycle anywhere from 60 yards to six yards out.

And while a growing number of morons continue their personal attacks on Tom Cleverley, two things must be kept in mind for any top club in Europe:

Football is now a squad game; and

The number one imperative is to hold onto the ball.

Compare the way England played against Denmark with Barcelona against Manchester City.

Ok so there is a glaring technical gap, but at last Roy Hodgson has got the message home to his moderate squad.

Don't give the ball away!

For the first time in living memory, none of the England players lumped the ball up the middle. That doesn't obviate long passes such as Rooney's and Gerrard's across field.

The result was that England had 57% possession and 19 attempts to Denmark's five. Only Kasper Schmeichel denied England a morale boosting romp.

Meanwhile, back at Old Trafford, while United are a work in progress there is clear evidence that David Moyes is following the work commenced by his predecessor in attempting to claim more possession, play a high line and build from the back.

There are, for the time being, problems with this:

The team's confidence is shot to pieces;

Several players have been out of form or injured (notably Van Persie, Jones, Evans, Carrick and Fellaini);

There is not enough pace through the middle; and

There is no Keane, Robson or Ince type player.

Moyes has had to be pragmatic and while he was rightly slaughtered for the team and tactics he used against Olympiakos, the 4-2-3-1 formation he has previously used has not been effective because of the lack of pace and technical skill needed to transition from defence to attack through the middle.

Indeed lesser teams have been much more effective than United in this respect, hence the defeats to Everton, Newcastle, Swansea and Olympiakos for example.

Personnel changes are more necessary than style

With different personnel and a settled squad Moyes can begin to build the style of team that was effective in the last couple of years of Ferguson and Meulenstein's partnership. Despite reservations about the quality of some squad players, United were often effective blending wide play and technical interchange across the front.

Taking the squad as a whole, there are clearly some players who do have the necessary qualities while others don't.

Anderson must go (along with Nani and Young). A likeable young man, he has been having a laugh at United's expense for far too long. Trailed as one of the world's best players in his teens he has become an expensive laughing stock at United.

For the time being at least Carrick, Fletcher and Cleverley should be retained.

Now the latter name might provoke ridicule at the moment due to the disgraceful witch hunt being carried out against his name. But the truth is that he has been made the scapegoat for some truly awful team performances and highly questionable tactics.

In a situation of such desperation as United's current plight it is hardly surprising that fans cannot see what Cleverley brings to the table. The trouble is that with Anderson being so dreadful, Fletcher not yet able to play every game, Jones being perpetually injured and Rooney needed up top, there has been no other player in the squad good enough to be the "water carrier" between defence and attack.

In a better team Cleverley would have played better and his supposed inadequacies noticed less. With football now a squad game and a limit on the number of non "home-grown" players, he may well keep his squad number for another couple of seasons at least.

He is naturally more attacking than he has been instructed to play. Anyone who saw him through his Academy years or playing every match for Team GB in the Olympics would have seen a better, much more expressive player.

The bald fact is that United have had no-one else dependable except Fletcher and Jones to turn to alongside Carrick. And Opta stats show that this season Cleverley's pass completion rate is over 90%; his tackle success rate is better than Barkley and Henderson; and his interception rate far ahead of those two and Jack Wilshere.

Cleverley has been scapegoated for United's indifferent performances but the plain truth is that they are conceding the first goal too often. When they do they lose almost all their matches.

But when United score first, they win almost all their matches. That is the secret to success for the rest of the season.

So who else should be retained?

We have previously mentioned Nick Powell. He is surely a potential successor to Carrick, with significantly better attacking credentials. Andreas Perreira, Ben Pearson and James Rothwell are the future, but sadly Davide Petrucci won't make it.

Who should United sign?

The players United should have signed last season but missed were Kevin Strootman, Anders Herrera and Thiago Alcantara. All of them were available, but instead we got Marouane Fellaini.

If Moyes gets the right players in the summer, Fellaini should be largely used as a substitute. His performance for Belgium in midweek showed what United bought. He can play in central midfield or "the hole".

If United were to buy only three players they should be Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan and William Carvalho. Between those three all the midfield bases would be covered. 

Kroos will become one of the greatest attacking midfielders in the world; Carvalho can be as good as Claude Makalele or Yaya Toure. Gundogan is the complete midfielder.

And players of that quality make other players better. Just look at Andrea Pirlo. Michael Carrick could be that good in a quality Italian or Spanish side.

The only worry is the potential "squeezing out" of younger players.

Carrick is 32, Fletcher is 30. 

Barcelona, Chelsea and Real Madrid have eight top class midfielders. 

While United also have eight, that includes four wingers (Giggs, Nani, Valencia and Young, all of whom may be gone by next season) and Fellaini, who may be best at Number 10 but Mata, Kagawa and Rooney are ahead of him in the queue.

Which leaves Carrick, Fletcher and Cleverley. And that is Moyes' problem.

So, with a bit of luck (and including players who we have included in attack), United's central midfield cohort next season could be:

Carrick, Carvalho, Cleverley, Fellaini, Fletcher, Gundogan, Kroos, Perreira and Powell, with Pearson to come when he has finished growing.

Hit me up on Twitter @terrypcarroll

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