A headache for Manchester United that needs immediate cure

If David Moyes gets down to figuring out one constant during his time at Old Trafford so far, headaches might just be at the top of the list. There have been causes aplenty. Pressure to carry forward a grand legacy, the need of immediate success football clubs seem to thrive on these days, retaining a player who’s slowly becoming indispensable at the club, signing new players et al. The biggest one, I’d guess, would’ve come from watching his own midfielders.

When the final whistle went at the Hawthorns on 19th of May 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson could say he left the club in reasonably great shape. League champions, young-ish team and a fantastic youth structure. The team had good players in all areas, barring the midfield. Even if you wear tinted glasses with the brightest red colors, a central midfield of Micheal Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Anderson isn’t exactly Manchester United standard. Credit to Moyes where due, he targeted the right players as soon as he arrived. Thiago Alcantara, Ander Herrera and Fabregas  were all pursued with high intensity. Just how we landed up with Marouane Fellaini is for another article.

Frequently referred to as the ‘engine’, a well-functioning central midfield is imperative to a well-functioning team. Carrick’s last 18 months leading up to May 2013 were, to put it simply, surreal. He not only managed to make United tick, he ended up masking the otherwise obvious frailties.  The law of averages had to come into play, and his injury this season, combined with patchy displays while playing, exposed what had missed the eye of those who matter at Manchester United. Tom Cleverley’s inability to get back the intensity which made him a promising youngster under Sir Alex and Fellaini’s recurring injuries meant Carrick was almost waging a lone battle. The result: fluffing his own lines.

The Problem

In the day and age of data-science, we fans are exposed to a lot of statistics which actually enhance our insight of the game. I went through a brief look on Squawka and managed to identify one major pattern. United’s two best performances this season(in Carrick’s presence) have come against Leverkusen at home and West Brom away. Carrick’s action-areas(where he most saw the ball) are strikingly similar. He tends to spend a large amount of time in the middle of the pitch while also going forward and helping in the final-third. Keeping van Persie’s injury in mind, United needed that support from the midfield.

He spent 60% of his ball-playing time in the middle and final third against Leverkusen. Lest we forget, Sidney Sam and Stefan Keissling are no mean forwards and there was work to be done defensively too. Just a positive intent which made all the difference.

Some of our worst performances this season have a similar pattern too: Carrick has been too deep. Without a player to marshall the midfield and get in passes to the forwards, we’ve struggled to score in a disturbingly high number of matches. Just 32% of his ball-time at Stoke was spent in the middle and final-third.

47% against Chelsea. Olympiakos will tell you a similar story. Too much of his time was spent covering our defense which resulted in us missing a link between the midfield and the front-line.

Enough evidence to be identified as a problem? I think so too.

The Solution

There has been plenty of talk regarding new players to be brought in this summer. Ilkay Gundogan of Dortmund and Toni Kroos from Bayern have been the biggest names on the radar. There was a brief rumor about exactly the kind of player we need: Arturo Vidal.

Taking nothing away from the immense talent of Kroos and Gundogan, I think we need a Vidal/Javi Martinez kind of player more. Someone who can break up opposition play and give Carrick the freedom to run the game from the midfield. We’re getting caught chasing the ball in the midfield way too often for a team of our stature. United’s domination over the last two decades has been based around possession football, something we blatantly lack right now. During the days of a fitter Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra, defending was seldom a problem and our midfield had the freedom to attack the opposition.

If someone in the mould of a Sven Bender or even his twin-brother Lars can be acquired, it’s going to be a party in the United midfield. When given the freedom, Carrick is a fantastic passer and we need just that right now. Marouane Fellaini might be big and strong, but I don’t remember him making excellent tackles at Everton. Here’s where I’m liking the link with William Carvalho of Sporting Lisbon. From what can be gathered by someone who hasn’t seen him play, he seems like the midfield general who’s happy to do the dirty work while being excellent on the ball. Kevin Strootman slipped through to Roma, let’s not lose the chance to bag someone like him again.

The business-end of the season is here. Our performance against West Brom was pleasing to say the least. In the coming weeks, Liverpool, Olympiakos and City await. I don’t see any other way of sneaking into the top four and progressing in the Champions League than attacking and positive football. I sincerely hope Moyes and his coaching staff don’t either. If they do, Coutinho and Yaya Toure will be licking their lips at the prospect of a frail United midfield to tear apart.

5 Comments

  1. Midfield is a problem Attacking football is the only way to backfoot teams……..moyes has allowed average teams to do that to United Carrick is no longer an answer……..he should be part of handing over for next year or so…………..to brilliant younger players…………….and get Kagawa into dual 10 with mata….even Rooney………….RVP will deliver again………….all these players have helped the defense out too much…..just start playing exciting football again…………..and around that will see the holes

  2. im getting the strong feeling you wish to keep carrick in the squad… BAD idea.

    firstly you talk about carricks action areas and the influence on the game. well firstly you could only name 2 matches where we have played significantly well with carrick. that alone is horrific. ONLY TWO GAMES??? shows just how consistent his positive influence is.

    secondly, carricks style of passing does not suite the utd style of play. the number of times he has cause problems. passes to team mates causing avoidable pressure, lazy movement and lack of pressure inviting more pressure. his overall game does not suite us at all. carrick has been this silent talisman for a reason, because those around him have made him look good. this is the first time after all these years people have really begun to consider him a world class player. answer me this, why has he never been an england regular? even now, hodgson rarely choses carrick. a player that can barely make it into his national team should be the heart of our utd team? no way!

    this is a problem that is really annoying me. soooo many people are talking about how we will play without the ball, how we will defend, how we will nulify opposition attack… tell me… why have utd fans become endorsers of defence?

    people call for rooney to be this no 10 player which means he must play deeper nullifying his real ability which is to score goals! carrick is not a match winner! yes we need a player that can dictate, but what are we supposed to do until we can sign that player???? carrick is of no use. motm vs west brom is a joke to football… how his performance could warrant that reward i have no idea!!!

    kagawa is a world class player, saying he has failed to prove himself is unfair. he has never been played in a way that he can be useful. he neds to play central not on the left, and he needs two strikers ahead of him.

    i stand by this team:
    de gea
    rafael smalling jones evra
    fellaini
    mata kagaw janujaz
    rooney rvp

    for those that say this could never work…. look at how closely it resembles the barca squad that beat city.

    all im saying is 5 attacking players 5 defensive players, moyes currently relies on 4 attacking players 6 defensive players

  3. Moyes has an ultra-cautious approach with a mindset based on his Everton days. He has been unable to step up to the next level of management and has been unwilling to take risks (as he sees it) and play a more positive, assertive brand of football, which United fans expect.

    This shows up in his team selection, his allocation of players’ roles and his overall tactics.

    Certainly there are issues at the back and in midfield but Moyes has made a real mess in the area where we have genuine quality. His misuse of our classy prized assets ie. RVP, Kagawa, Mata, Rooney and Januzaj has meant United have been short of goals and short of ideas.

    This fab five ought to be a threat to any defence in Europe. Other teams ought to be worried about how to stop United, not the other way round.

    However,

    RVP is frustrated about his lack of goals due in no small part to Moyes’ often long ball approach and the hit and hope crossing. The service to RVP has been rubbish in most games and now he has temporarily lost his goal scoring touch.

    Kagawa a classy no.10 is never usually played in his best position. He has been out on the lefthand side or in the main, on the bench.

    Similarly Mata has been stuck on the right and is has operated has a more conventional rightside midfielder than as a playmaker.

    Januzaj appears to be losing a bit of his spontanaity and freedom, and is being played more as a leftwinger, presumably because he is the best crosser in the team. Hope Moyes doesn’t mess him up.

    Rooney gets to do whatever he likes and has the coverted no.10 role. Rooney is good at coming deep for the ball and then hitting long passes. He is also a very good goalscorer. What he is not the best at, is being an edge of the box incisive passing, play-maker in the mould of David Silva or Luka Modric. That type of role needs to utilise the qualities of Kagawa and Mata, and eventually Januzaj.

    Playing this fab five with RVP and Rooney ahead of Kagawa, Mata and Kagawa playing a fluid, flexible, controlled, pass and move style with plenty of possession would allow United to control games and pressure opposition defences. That in itself would take the pressure off United’s defensive midfield and back four. Fellaini would be in behind the attacking players and the back four focussed mainly on defensive duties.

    It’s an attacking formation but then United is an attacking team which puts fear into opposition defences. Well at least it used to, before Daisy Moyes and his coaching staff came onto the scene.

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