There is no doubt this season’s title race is one of the most exciting in history. The top teams are as good as ever, filled with many of the worlds best players, Manchester City ooze class, Spurs are going well, as are Arsenal and Chelsea are resurgent. Already Manchester City have opened a gap at the top of the Premier League, but as they drop points against Chelsea, Manchester United lie in wait. Good news for United, but not everything is going their way…
Manchester United have just been hit by the news that Darren Fletcher is out for an ‘extended’ period as he suffers from a condition called Ulcerative Colitis (a chronic inflammatory bowel condition), not good news for Fletcher, Fergie or Manchester United fans…but it is good news for the rest of the Premier League as Manchester United’s central midfield has become even weaker.
Despite Fergie making some healthy additions to the Manchester United squad in the summer, this is by far the weakest his team has been when it comes to United’s engine room, especially compared to their rivals. Darren Fletcher adds to a growing injury list for United, with midfielders Anderson and Cleverley out for another month at least, leaving Ji-Sung Park, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick as the only senior centre midfielders and Giggs is really a winger, whilst you wouldn’t claim Park was necessarily a central player.
Having to rely on Park, Giggs and Carrick is not ideal, it is hardly like this trio don’t have have enough problems of their own. Carrick’s injury problems have restricted him to only 7 starts so far this season, Ryan Giggs is now 38-years-old and has to be managed in the right way without playing too many games if he is to prolong his career even further. Ji-Sung Park is a good player, but Fergie hasn’t given him many extended runs in the first team; Park is now in his seventh season at United, but shockingly has only played over 17 league games for the club in two of his seven seasons.
Even if these three are all fit between now and the end of the season, are any of these player particularly creative? You may scream Giggs, but he is getting old and we all know what older players do when they near their twilight years – move back and sit deeper. Carrick is a defensive midfielder, although he does always like to look for forward passes and Park is just a midfielder with an engine, not massively creative, being a good utility midfielder is his main calling. Where can the invention come from?
Cleverley is now Manchester United’s most creative centre-midfield player, but he is out until at least the beginning of January, then there is Anderson who is out until February. Cleverley has a lot to prove still and neither player is near the top 10 centre-mids in the country in my opinion, which is what United should have.
If you look at the youngsters coming through, there are two outstanding candidates for a central midfield birth at United in Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison. Pogba looks like a real prospect and special talent, but he is just another midfielder who is more defensive than attacking. I know Pogba can get forward and contribute now and then, but this isn’t the main part of his game and he is massively unproven.
Morrison is a much more attacking player than Pogba and some think he has more potential, but questions marks remain. The 18-year-old has only played for the Manchester United XI twice in cup games and never in the Premier League. Morrison also needs to grow up as he has been in trouble with the police, been outspoken about the club on Twitter and is generally a bit of a loose-cannon, regardless of his talent…not someone Manchester United can rely on just yet.
The bottom line for me is that title challengers need more quality than what United currently possess and with the strength of the opposition they cannot rely on ‘the Fergie factor’ alone. When talking about solving United’s problems in the middle of the park, United have two choices: Firstly move Wayne Rooney back in to midfield. Secondly go out and buy in January.
Let’s start with Wayne Rooney; there is no doubt he can do a job playing centre-mid as he has already proved his versatility by playing there previously and performing well, but do you want your main striker having to play in midfield – would City ever move Aguero back or Arsenal move van Persie in to central midfield? No. (Don’t start wining ‘they aren’t the same players’ the point is about depth!
Cleverley’s injury record is pretty bad and it wouldn’t be unexpected for him to pick up another injury again, so Rooney could be filling in every few weeks if injuries persist and in my opinion no team can afford to do that with their star player. United’s cover upfront is only really Hernandez and Welbeck, as Berbatov looks increasingly more likely to leave the club as the weeks roll on and he doesn’t play. Could Hernandez and Welbeck deliver United enough firepower to bring home the title? Not in my opinion, both are still young and proving themselves fully.
Which leads me on to option two, United need to go and sign a player and not just any player, either a world top 20 centre-mid or someone who will be that in years to come. Manchester United haven’t signed a player to fill the boots of Scholes, but its tough to do for a couple of reasons: 1) he has tiny feet and 2) he was probably one of the best midfield players this country has seen and finding someone with his ability, mentality and also his personality is extremely hard.
United have evolved, they don’t need a Paul Scholes carbon copy, it doesn’t exist and the game has changed. Manchester United need to look at a player like Wesley Sneijder, an established international where you know what you will be getting, a player that is top 10 in the world and available. Or even someone like Luka Modric who can make your side tick, although Spurs are not going to be selling him come January. Other more established players could be the likes of Schweinsteiger or even some like Kaka who they maybe able to get in on loan.
Maybe Fergie could gamble on a youngster like Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Götze who is a very talent boy, but is also ruled out until mid-January with an injury that could scupper any move. Others promising youngsters are Christian Eriksen at Ajax, Javi Martinez at Atletico Bilbao, Nicolas Gaitan at Benfica, Ganso at Santos or even Hernanes at Lazio. I could go on and speculate as there are plenty of good young players about, as there are established players, who Fergie has been watching we can only wait and find out. The big question is will he sign someone after saying the squad is good enough? Fletcher’s leave gives him the option, but maybe Manchester United won’t want to pay the January premiums. They also have the added problem of the fact they are now out of the Champions League and attracting players is more tricky.
We could speculate about transfer targets all day, but the reality remains that Manchester United are not only short on bodies, but short on quality. Ask yourself how many of the current Manchester United centre midfielder players would get in at any other top 6 Premier League club – none. If Manchester United want to remain in this title hunt they need to start making some moves or they could just get left behind and that is not acceptable to either Fergie or the fans…December will be an interesting month, but not a patch on what January could turn out to be.