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.
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.
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.