The midfield has been the focus of much attention this year, but in truth most United fans would have identified this as an area of the team that has needed significant investment, if not a complete overhaul, for some time. You could argue that the midfield has been an area of concern since the departure of Roy Keane. Since then United have signed midfield players, some of whom have come and gone, but a Keane ‘type’ has been missing. An established, tried-and-tested first team midfield player has not been signed since 2007. That player was Owen Hargreaves and perhaps he was seen as the Keane replacement. Unfortunately it didn’t work out because of injury. United have bought other midfielders, but they have been either a different type of player or a promising youngster. The club have also sought to promote from the youth ranks but all with varying degrees of success.
In fairness, the midfield weakness cannot be blamed on David Moyes. He inherited a situation last summer and immediately identified the need to strengthen the midfield. For a variety of reasons this didn’t work out. We talked about this at length at the time, so we won’t go over that ground again. If you want to read more see: www.vavel.com/en/football/premier-league/manchester-united/262801-manchester-united-s-summer-transfer-market-procrastinate-now.html Unfortunately some muddled thinking and the combination of a new manager and new CEO resulted in the club bringing in only one midfield reinforcement at the very end of the window. Panic?
The midfield is perhaps the most important area of any team in that its relationship with the other parts, both attack and defence is so intimate. The team’s ability to win and retain the ball relies on a competent and functioning midfield, whatever system you play. Having such a unit takes pressure off other areas of the team and goes some way to masking other squad deficiencies. Before we go any further we should be clear about what we mean here by midfield; United have generally played a 4-2-3-1 shape in recent years, whether under Sir Alex or David Moyes. In this shape the area we are referring to is the two who play in front of the back four. Usually that has been Carrick plus another. Here is not the time to focus on individual midfield players’ strengths and weaknesses. (Our player by player review will be published on the site post-season.) Instead we want to look at the balance of our midfield, the lack of a certain type of player and what this means for the team as a whole.
Clearly we don’t know whether United will set up with a central midfield 2, 3 or 4 next year, and even if we knew who our new manager is to be we cannot know his preference with absolute certainty. It is the lack of a certain type of box-to-box all-rounder and a ball-winning midfield player which is the principle concern. The addition of one or more players of this type would give United a range of tactical options which we currently don’t have, never a bad thing whatever the system.
Over the last few years there have been consistent problems with United’s midfield. The main problem has been the balance of the midfield. Conventionally in a midfield 2 as part of the 4-2-3-1 system, a side would play a double pivot; two complementary players, both able to sit and screen but also push forward as a shuttler. Each would take it in turn to fulfil either of these two roles, one screening whilst the other shuttles and then vice versa. The problem for United is that United don’t have players who can fulfil both these roles. Instead United have played one more static, deep-lying, creative midfield player and another who is attempting to be a shuttler.
In recent years United’s first choice ‘screen’ has been Carrick, who has most of the qualities needed to fulfil this role. He helps to screen the defence as well as pass the ball out of defence from deep positions and direct the attacking thrust. His weakness is that he does not make that many tackles and struggles when pressed.
The shuttler’s role at United is to be a midfield player who is more mobile than his partner, able to push up and down the pitch, dropping back to help in the defensive phase but pushing forward in the attacking phase to support from a higher position. The shuttler would play further forward than the screen. It is the lack of a player suited to this role which creates the imbalance. The balance of the midfield has been at its best when Carrick has been paired with either Cleverley or Giggs. In the recent Champions League game against Olympiakos at Old Trafford, Giggs fulfilled the role of the shuttler and put in a great match-winning performance. He made the difference in this match, pushing forward, running at the opposition, and dropping back to pick people up and tackling. The problem is that we can’t continue to rely on Giggs, at least as a player and against better opposition (Bayern Munich in the following Champions League round for example) because Giggs often struggles as part of a midfield two.
Cleverley has most often been used as a shuttler, but he has a couple of weaknesses which mean that he will never be able to fulfil this role satisfactorily. Firstly, he does not function well in tight areas. His ball retention and pass completion is good, but he doesn’t think ahead of the game and therefore never seems to have enough time to make the telling pass. When playing in high areas, Cleverley struggles to make a significant impact. His other weakness is that he is fairly lightweight. He is often outmuscled and when beaten struggles to get back at his opponent.
Once he had identified the midfield as a weakness early on, Moyes looked to experiment with the available personnel, integrate Fellaini, identify his strongest combination and achieve some balance. Perhaps Moyes anticipated a first choice midfield pairing of Carrick and Fellaini as a double pivot in United’s 4-2-3-1 shape. Fellaini had a poor game at Manchester City in September and was cup-tied for the midweek League Cup game which followed. Perhaps as a response to his performance the previous week, he was stood down in favour of a pairing of Carrick and Anderson in the League game against West Bromwich Albion.
The potential shortcomings of the Carrick-Fellaini pairing were thrown into sharp relief in that midweek game when United faced Liverpool in the League Cup. Moyes selected Giggs and Jones and, whilst United’s performance wasn’t great, they appeared a far more complementary pairing. Of course Giggs is more naturally mobile, whilst Jones is more likely to occupy space and screen using his defensive qualities. Giggs provided a link between defence and attack and the pairing acted more like a double pivot than a simple screen to the defence, which was what we saw from Carrick and Fellaini in the derby. That phenomena resulted in United becoming stretched, with the forwards isolated.
Having been signed on transfer deadline day it would clearly take time for Fellaini to integrate. But there were concerns immediately. Is he too similar in style to Carrick? Neither player is particularly mobile; Carrick is the more creative of the two, but neither functions well in advanced or tight areas when pressed.
The next significant weakness is the lack of a midfield ball winner. This relates to the lack of a satisfactory shuttler, but is in fact a much bigger problem. United have lacked a true midfield tackler since the loss of Keane. On countless occasions in recent years United have failed to dominate the opposition because of this lack of a ball winner. Having lost the ball United have tended to drop back into a defensive shape and wait for the opposition to make a mistake that results in them losing the ball. But when United play accomplished sides who are able to keep possession, they tend to struggle; a classic example of this was in the Europa League game at Old Trafford against Athletic Bilbao in 2011. This weakness often meant that when teams came to Old Trafford to defend United found it hard to build up momentum. To build pressure on a side, United needed to retain possession and when they lost possession to win it back quickly. In recent years United have found this hard to do. This year Moyes tried to play Marouanne Fellaini as a ball- winning shuttler. This didn’t work because he doesn’t read the game well, nor is he that quick. Consequently he found himself chasing the ball after it had already been moved on, has been booked regularly and was sent off at Real Soicedad. He has ended up simply looking clumsy. Perhaps the player who is best suited to a ball-winning role is Darren Fletcher, but can United rely on a player who has missed so much of the last two seasons with illness?
The third significant problem has been the position of the midfield. This has been exacerbated by David Moyes’ instruction to his midfield two to sit deep and stay behind the ball. We have talked about this before, but to recap: When United have the ball the team’s shape becomes stretched, with the front players becoming isolated from the defence and midfield. When the opposition has the ball, United’s stretched shape has given it more than enough space in the middle of the park to break into.
There is another, equally significant consequence of United’s midfield’s positioning, which is that when United have possession of the ball, sitting deep can encourage the opposition to press ahead. With nobody running ahead of the ball, players find themselves with no option but to pass short and square. This encourages opposition teams to increase their pressure and results in United becoming trapped in tight areas, eventually losing possession close to their own box. This was first glaringly obvious in United’s early season defeat at Anfield but more recently was a significant factor in our defeat at Olympiakos.
Of course United don’t need to stick to the 4-2-3-1 and whilst this has been the recent orthodoxy, United have used other formations on occasions. Sir Alex regularly reverted to a 4-3-3 against Arsenal and employed a similar strategy last year against Spurs and Real Madrid. Most often the central two would remain as they were in the 4-2-3-1, but with an additional player, usually a withdrawn forward, or at least an attacking midfield player who can drop deeper to occupy space or man-mark an opponent. A few years ago that player was most usually Park and more recently, Welbeck. The characteristics both these players share are pace and energy which allowed both to cover ground across the middle and spring forward whenever the opportunity allowed.
If (as many suspect) the new manager is van Gaal, he comes from a 4-3-3 tradition, so we would expect him to invest in a number of flexible, box-to-box midfield players in order to give the team potential for greater balance and flexibility. We would anticipate that at least one will be a more defensive, perhaps ball-winning player and another being more attack- minded. But whoever the new manager is, this summer must be the time when United invest to strengthen midfield and eliminate long standing weaknesses.