It was during November, 2011, Manchester United’s mid-field concerns became conspicuous. At that time, the midfield which featured Darren Fletcher, Carrick and Anderson in central roles was plagued with injuries and inconsistency. While Fletcher was on treatment for ulcerative colitis, Anderson was out with a knee injury. Michael Carrick, alone, couldn’t contribute much playing alongside Cleverley, who was still beginning to acclimatize to United’s playing style. Later, Cleverley too was sidelined for a month with an ankle injury!
8th Jan, 2012. Paul Scholes came out of retirement to support a squad that was in injury crisis. Then there was Phil Jones, a central defender but forced to play in the right back and defensive midfielder positions. Only Fergie’s ingenious tactical decisions and a clever rotation of the squad had kept United afloat in the Premier League title race. However, the Red Devils slipped despite having an 8 point lead over their neighbours at the top of the table, with just six games to go and ultimately lost the title on goal difference on the last day of the season.
The next season, 2012-13 was a different story. Manchester United won the league thanks to outstanding contributions from select players, with the mastermind of Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson pulling the strings. Rightly voted as Manchester United’s player of the year, Michael Carrick has a passing accuracy of over 90%. A whopping 35% of his passes are aimed forward, the highest for any Premier League midfielder last season. Defensively he has made the most interceptions (49). His prolific short passing game combined with his tenacity for ball retention proved critical.
The arrival of Robin Van Persie was arguably the prime reason for Manchester United winning the league title last season. RVP contributed to 30% of the goals scored by Manchester United and was voted by the fans as Sir Matt Busby Player of the year for 2012-13. Another consistent player in the last year was Jonathan Evans, who with his stellar performances has proved to be an ideal replacement for the ageing Ferdinand.
Likely departures of Rooney, Nani and Anderson, over dependence on Michael Carrick and the likes of the not-so-consistent Youngs, Cleverleys and Kagawas have all factored to create some noise at Old Trafford pleading for strong reinforcements in the midfield. Also, Manchester United’s early exits from UEFA Champions League in the last two years point to the fact that there is definitely something missing in the squad; the midfield to be precise.
Michael Carrick at 31 is a good holding midfielder, and can definitely contribute to the team for at least two more seasons. Cleverley again is a decent footballer who can pass, tackle and shoot; but in all probability, he isn’t ready to be crowned as the main man for one of the world’s top sides. Kagawa is yet to hit the peak but is surely showing signs of maturity. So there is a clear need of a shot in the arm for United if they are to aim for European glory.
Manchester United has not invested in the central midfield ever since the capture of Owen Hargreaves and Anderson way back during the beginning of 2006-07 season. The Premier League is getting tougher over the years with five to six teams realistically looking to finish in the top four. When you have owners like that of Man City and Chelsea splurging money to buy the best talent all the time, it becomes a bit of concern for the other teams.
The rumors linking Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara do Nascimento a.k.a Thiago Alacantra with the Old Trafford side are very gratifying. He could certainly be an ideal replacement for legendary Paul Scholes. The 22 year old’s strength lies in his passing and dribbling abilities, and also has a good ability holding on to the ball. He is the sort of player who brings in a bit of creativity in the centre of the field. Players like RVP and Chicharito need to be fed with through balls will find an ally in Thiago. Also, at Catalonia, he has had to fight with Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquests, Song and Mascherano for first team opportunities whereas at United, he will be the main man. He along with Kagawa, Cleverley and Carrick could become a formidable force for the Red Devils.
Kevin Strootman, known as the Dutch Roy Keane is another name linked with Manchester United strongly. Currently at PSV Eindhoven, he serves as a box-to-box midfielder. His tackling abilities combined with good vision and balance are his game’s highlights. He was instrumental in PSV winning the KNVM Cup and John Cruijff Shield in the year 2011-12. Strootman is still 23 and would be an ideal replacement for Michael Carrick in the long term. For now, he could add some much-needed dynamism to Manchester United’s midfield.
Inconsistent performances from Luis Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young in the past two seasons have forced United’s scouting department to look for new talent in the wing department. Nicolas Gaitan, the 25 year old Argentine footballer, has been identified as one with exceptional dribbling skills and ball control.
Gaitan, who plays primarily on the left-wing for Portuguese side Benfica, is a two-footed player with good distribution abilities. The South American footballer has already expressed his interest in playing for a top European side and the officials at Old Trafford are keeping a close watch.
An ideal scenario – a tad incredible, you might say – at Old Trafford, would be the return of Cristiano Ronaldo. Rumors abound that Nike is working out a sponsorship deal with United to lure Ronaldo back from Real Madrid. If Wayne Rooney decides to stay with the Red Devils and if Ronaldo returns, it will effectively make Manchester United favorites for the league title again.
United fans would call that the status quo.
– Nandan Gururaj