August is upon us and as the Red Devils continue with their trip to the US, the start of the season is surely on everyone’s mind. The silly season is well and truly at its zenith and after quite an extravagant start to the “transfer season” by the Old Trafford club, it’s fair to say that normalcy has returned to proceedings. Ferguson and United have brought in three new faces to the roster – a brilliant new ‘keeper in the form of young David De Gea, an excellent young defensive prospect in Phil Jones and the tried and tested winger/wide forward – Ashley Young.
But invariably the legion of United fans want more and it’s fair to say that the vast majority would sacrifice one of these signings for a more pertinent one, albeit in most fans book, – centre midfielder. Now according to United fans, the squad seems to lack in one area, more than any other, the Achilles heel as we might call it. Yes, the centre midfield options seem pretty thin and at times quite grim. After the departure of the one and only Paul Scholes and the failure of Hargreaves to rise from his persistent injury woes, the depth in centre of the park is at an all time low.
Ferguson also said in a recent interview
We started the season with the players we have and I am satisfied with that. We are not looking at the moment but we are looking at combinations of central midfielders now at the club.
The second bit is quite interesting and really an area, which needs to be understood and explored before spitting out the dummy in anger.
At United, the specialist centre midfielders are numbered – Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Darren Gibson would be the obvious first team candidates. A case can be made for the likes of Park Ji Sung, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones; however, none of them are specialist in that area of the field with Park being the closest fit. Tom Cleverley has mostly been used as a left sided winger or an attacking midfielder in a three-man midfield. Phil Jones is definitely a central defender, who could be used in the midfield in case of crisis.
That narrows it down to the usual suspects – Giggs, Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson and Gibson. Furthermore Gibson might not be at the Old Trafford next season, as Sir Alex admitted that the future of the Irishmen remains in limbo. However, if Gibson stays, his role will be yet again that of a bit-part player.
Now Ferguson, during his 24 years at the Old Trafford club has almost religiously stuck to his beloved 4-4-2, with a few variations here and there. So invariably United will once again rely on a two-man central midfield for the large majority of their campaign.
TheHardTackle examines a few of these combinations that the wily old fox would be looking to deploy, based on opponent, form, fitness and most importantly chemistry between the two.
This pairing was used most frequently at the backend of the last campaign and invariably delivered the goods and that too against elite opponents. The system works beautifully with the help of two hardworking wide players ala Park and Valenica, assisting the central pairing of Giggs and Carrick, tucking in to make up the numbers, if need be. Carrick performs the role of guarding the back four, holding his position in front of the defense and marshalling the spaces between the center backs and the midfield as well as keeping the game ticking over. The much criticized Englishmen has more than held his own in this deep role, with the veteran Welshman assuming the role of a playmaker. Their displays against Chelsea in all three games, in the run in and the UCL quarter finals, were perfect examples of their chemistry. Schalke away game was another reminder of the consummate balance the two provide. However, Giggsy is now 38 and hence would be used scarcely and judicially by Sir Alex; hence other options need more investigation.
Darren Fletcher had an absolute nightmare with the virus last season and rather worryingly for United, hasn’t recovered yet. Now the Fletcher-Carrick partnership is another big game central pairing for the Red Devils. An in-form Fletcher and a steady Carrick will more than likely shut out most oppositions. Carrick can at times venture forward when paired with the Scot and display his wide array of passing, which he has curbed down largely owing to the fact that he has been playing as the holding man in midfield. Also, the two wingers would be given license to be more adventurous and the likes of Nani can cause havoc. Fletcher’s fitness and form is the key, as he can run around and harry the opposition into mistakes. The drawback in the Carrick-Fletcher axis is the lack of a genuine goal threat from the centre, with all the attack being confined to the wings. Let’s put it this way, the duo provide a firm base but at times the incisiveness is sacrificed at the cost of steadiness.
On paper, this should work to the hilt and has worked at times but only at the comforts of OT. There is enough steel, fair amounts of flair and genuine on-the-ball ability in the combination. Carrick would hold and Anderson can look to be more penetrating and pull the strings, as they say. Anderson is probably the most talented central player at Old Trafford right now; he has the raw material and the attitude to boot but somehow manages to throw it all away. His greatest strengths are his ability to make surging runs from midfield, shield the ball and an eye for great passes, while Carrick keeps the game ticking over and shields the United-rearguard. However, in away games, the duo have put on invisible cloaks and the midfield has been overrun on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, if the duo get their acts together, especially on away trips, United might gain enormously.
This combination has been a rarity in the recent past, mostly owing to Fletcher’s long layoff due to injury. However, going back by a couple of years, Giggs and Fletcher worked wonderfully, most notably as the central pairing in a 3-0 victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford. Now two years later, Fletcher’s purple patch has faded while Giggs has reinvented himself, albeit at the cost of adding to his age. For the pairing Fletcher and Giggs to work, Fletcher would need to hold his position a lot better, as Giggs would be entrusted with the playmaker role in the opposition-third. Unlike Carrick, Fletcher isn’t exactly the best interceptor of passes and hence would rely on putting pressure on the attackers to come away with ball. Giggs would also need to perform his share of defensive duties and the duo can balance offense and defense admirably. However, one would need the Fletcher of the past (more precise a couple of summers back) to make this combination work at its best.
The fitness of both Anderson and Fletcher has been troubling the manager a lot lately and the duo hasn’t really got a chance to form a pairing, at least not in a two-man midfield. The axis of Carrick-Fletcher-Anderson has been used often in a three-man midfield and with good effect, most recently during the last campaign, in the away win at Mestalla against Valencia. However, the roles change drastically in a two-man midfield in the absence of Carrick, as both will have to make their contributions at either box. But the inability of either man to hold on to their position perfectly makes this combination unstable, which opens up spaces in front of the United back four to be exploited. To sum it up, this combo can possibly work but would be prone to being overrun. Controlling the tempo of the game might also be an issue.
Fragile and prone to attacks, with no out-and-out defensive minded player. The Giggs and Ando combo could possibly be used against weaker opposition, but then again Giggs might be rested for such games. May be when chasing a game, Sir Alex could decide to go for broke and unleash the two. Whether Sir Alex ventures into the market for a midfielder of repute, is anyone’s guess. There are certainly a few combinations which could provide relief.
Needless to say, though, that the argument of fans will never end.