Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Not So Cleverley, Sir Alex

The news that Darren Fletcher is suffering with ulcerative colitis is a huge blow for a player who had transformed himself from Old Trafford boo boy to terrace hero. He faces a year out of the game at a point where he ought to be firmly establishing himself in Sir Alex Ferguson’s midfield. Hopefully his proven resilience will ensure that he returns as a driving force next season.

For the club, Fletcher’s illness worsens a midfield crisis of epic proportions. With injuries to Anderson and Tom Cleverley, only Michael Carrick remains of United’s specialist central midfielders. Park Ji Sung, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones have been pressed into service in these roles recently and with the festive fixtures looming, Ferguson seems set to continue deploying square pegs in round holes.

Shouldn’t a manager of Ferguson’s stature and experience have recognised that United have been desperately short in midfield for some time? Anderson has always been injury-prone and has just returned from knee surgery. Fletcher has already spent long periods out of the team with his previously undisclosed illness. And the reliance on Cleverley is bizarre and alarming given how few games he’s actually played for the first team.

Perhaps the current crisis is indicative of a wider problem under Ferguson’s tenure: an alarming lack of quality midfield signings. Over the course of his stewardship, Ferguson has seen some legendary midfielders pull on the red shirt: Bryan Robson, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane. An assortment of extremely capable players have also filled the central berths: Paul Ince, Nicky Butt, Michael Carrick. But the best of those were either inherited or were products of United’s famed youth academy. The only truly outstanding purchase has been Keane –the greatest driving midfielder of his generation.

Attempts to replace the Irishman have largely failed. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel picking out those who fell so far from the required standard: Liam Miller, Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba spring readily to mind. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect anyone to replicate Keane’s role for the team. But whilst tacticians the world over have long thought a holding midfielder a necessity, Ferguson has rarely played that way.

Occasional deficiencies in central midfield have often been masked by a dazzling array of wingers. In wide areas, Ferguson has long been able to spot talent: bargains like Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe blossomed at Old Trafford, Ryan Giggs was stolen from under the noses of Manchester City, Cristiano Ronaldo became the world’s most expensive player under Ferguson’s tutelage. And his commitment to wide players continues even now with Luis Nani overcoming a difficult start to become the team’s most threatening attacker.

But now, finally, it seems that the potent widemen who’ve characterised Fergie’s time in the Old Trafford dugout can no longer hide the glaring holes in the middle of the park. It’s a long time since Manchester United brought in a top quality midfielder in either of the two positions they seem to be screaming out for: a scheming battler and creative lynchpin.

Owen Hargreaves ought to have been the former but his time at the club was destroyed by injury. This cannot have been foreseen, but the fact remains that his four year contract expired with him having played less than thirty games for the club – and in that time no attempt appears to have been made to replace him. It’s perhaps telling that Ferguson has consistently selected defenders in this position – and not just recently. Players such as Ronnie Johnsen, Phil Neville and John O’Shea have played in front of the back four many times over the years: the deployment of Phil Jones in the position should surprise nobody. Identifying the kind of player who can shield a defence and bring the ball out from the back has long been problematic for the United manager.

Similarly, it seems that the role of creator has not been adequately filled following Paul Scholes’ retirement. Instead of recruiting from elsewhere a succession of players have filled in. Rooney’s attacking thrust has been diluted in this role, Park hasn’t got the nous for it and Giggs is simply too old to be relied upon regularly. Perhaps Ferguson remains scarred by the failed acquisition of Juan Sebastian Veron – a player who arrived for a huge fee which he never came close to repaying.

One only needs to look around United’s rivals to see just how comparatively weak they are in central areas. Spurs boast players like Luka Modric, Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone and Sandro. At Arsenal Alex Song, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsay are the first choice picks. Chelsea can call on the dynamism of Ramires, Raul Mereiles and (when fit) Michael Essien. At the base of midfield they’ve unearthed a gem in Oriel Romeu. Every single one of the players mentioned would improve the United first team. And Manchester City’s collection of megastars hasn’t even been mentioned.

It’s almost sacrilegious to criticise Sir Alex Ferguson for any perceived shortcomings. He’s consistently unearthed gems in the transfer market and nurtured wonderful players through United’s academy. His sides have constantly excited fans, won games and garnered trophies. But if the great man has one blind spot it’s in central midfield: it’s a situation he’ll need to resolve as soon as possible if his side are to remain competitive in a football world where tiki-taka, midfield passing and ball possession are more important than they ever have been.

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