By Gary Fowler.
Last week Roy Keane’s blunt assessment that Manchester United had not been good enough to progress in the Champions League brought back memories of November 2005 when he castigated some of his team mates following the 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough. Even though at the time I 100% agreed with him I thought it highly unprofessional to express this point of view while a part of the team. However he was absolutely entitled (and correct in my opinion) as a pundit in pointing out United’s failings following the recent loss to Basle. In subsequent press conferences Ferguson seemed to take offence to Keane’s comments largely because he does not like others to question his team. Note that Keane’s punditry should not be confused with his management ability. Perhaps Ferguson reacted as such because he knew Roy was right? As Keane said in The Daily Star (Dec 19th) “I understand power and control over people inside the football club but not power and control over the people who have left the club. He (Fergie) is trying to have power and control over me, but I left United six years ago.” History though does tells us it is accepted for Ferguson to question his own players over the years as he has proved by moving those on whom he believes are no longer up to the task. In no way am I suggesting a ‘Fergie Out’ campaign, merely that I don’t believe that 25 years in charge and a record trophy hall exempts him from criticism. He wouldn’t stand for complacency or mediocrity so why should we?
It is the current trend for every fan, pundit, tweeter and journalist to disparage United’s midfield and question certain individuals. However, recently, this negativity has thrown up almost as much support in defence of the players from those who believe they are being targeted by bandwagon jumpers. Twitter rages from one extreme to the other, from those ripping the current midfield playing staff to shreds to those offering unadulterated support. So where do I stand?
At 30 years of age I have most definitely grown up as a spoilt Man United fan. Some of my first United memories are of a midfield that boasted the tail end of Robbo’s career, the emergence of Lee Sharpe and the first Premier League winning side. This soon became the ’94 double winning foursome of Giggs-Keane-Ince-Kanchelskis with Sharpe and McClair as back up. Then we were blessed from ’95-’03 with Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Beckham, and Butt, Veron, etc in reserve. For around 15 years we have been witness to some of the world’s best midfield quartets, yet now….
United’s starting central pair in Basle was a 19 year old centre defender and a 38 year old ex-winger, hardly likely to make any European team worry, let alone the ones we should be competing with. This season, more so than any other, you would be hard pressed to pick our starting/best four in midfield. Yes there have been injuries and illness, but if everyone was available who would your best four be? There would be countless combinations, but ask anyone in ’94 or ’99 and the same four names would roll off their tongues.
We were all buoyed at the start of the season as Anderson continued his good form from the end of last season and in conjunction with Cleverley’s emergence and Ashley Young’s good start it looked as if we may have found the answer. After Cleverley’s injury, Anderson form dropped dramatically and he soon followed Cleverley onto the treatment table. Fletcher has barely played and is now out for some time and others have floated in and out of the side with Rooney even dropping into midfield recently for one game; hardly a ringing endorsement of our options, injuries or not. Despite Jones and Giggs starting together in Switzerland they were probably the two best players, as Keane pointed out. Jones has now started quite a few games in midfield and put in another great performance this weekend at QPR. So what does this say about our other options?
Twitter has many calling for Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison as our saviours, but to ask two youngsters with less than a handful of first team games between them to lead the midfield revival is unfair at best. Even to ask Tom Cleverley, at only 22, to be that leading player in his first full United season is asking too much. He and Jones may form a great partnership against the likes of QPR, Blackburn, Bolton etc but will they suffice against those forming the top six?
So where do we stand with our current options? We have many good players, but do we have enough great midfielders like those mentioned previously? Recently Sky Sports tweeted urging fans to give their “Fergie best 11” from his 25 years reign (For reference I went with Schmeichel-Irwin-Vidic-Bruce-GNev-Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Becks-Eric-Ruud). Not including Giggs, none of the current crop would even come close to breaking into this team. In fact I could pick a second midfield four who would keep the current selection out.
Starting with centre midfielders; Michael Carrick is a good player, but is he United good? He rarely drives box to box, infrequently assists on or scores goals and isn’t particularly aggressive defensively. He played well this weekend against QPR, but United level players should not be judged on games such as these. Fletcher is very similar, occasionally good but too often mediocre and Darron Gibson is a worse version of both, who might give Jonny Wilkinson a run for his money in consistently putting the ball over the bar. Even if you roll these three players together into one you still could not mould a player that is anywhere close to a Keane, Robson, Scholes etc. Our current centre midfield options would have been a back-up in years gone by just like McClair was to Ince/Keane and Butt was to Keane/Scholes. Cleverley has a lot of potential, he is prepared to get forward and support the strikers, has craft and vision, but he is the only one who does and Jones has shown ability to drive box to box. But again to put it all on them in their first full season is unfair, especially given the weak supporting cast. Anderson, as I said before, started the season well but faded fast. This is now his 5th season at United and at 23 he still can’t command a regular starting position. All the centre midfielders have their moments, but collectively are inconsistent and fall short against top class opposition, something which unacceptable to a team of United’s level. Carrick stands out for me here having made major errors in the 2009 European Cup Final and the 2011 FA Cup Semi-final.
Moving to our wide players. Of course we all know United have a history of wingers and I started out with the joy of Giggs and Kanchelskis tormenting opposition full backs and supplying multiple balls for the strikers. Beckham was a different kind of player, but the number of assists the man delivered for Cole, Yorke, Sheringham, Solksjaer and Ruud over the years was amazing. Van Nistelrooy’s goal tally dropped by 25% the year after Beckham left. And then Ronaldo came along and offered a different wing-forward option again.
Currently we have Ashley Young, a left winger who can’t cross with his left foot and therefore has become very predictable, consistently cutting back onto his right foot to swing in the same cross. Valencia seems to have lost all ability to beat the full back and cross on his right side, whereas a year ago Rooney seemed to delight in Valencia’s deliveries. Too many times now he looks for the full back to overlap rather than taking the defender on himself. Nani, the wannabe Ronaldo, is inconsistent with his deliveries on either side and leaves our strikers’ arms flung to the sky on way too many occasions as he overdoes it in early-Ronaldo fashion. This weekend at QPR was typical of Nani, so much promise, so little end product. For Nani to win the club’s player of the year last year highlights how average the squad is. At 25 Ronaldo and Beckham were some of the best players in Europe yet people seem to forget Nani is already this age. Ji-Sung Park is revered for his work rate, yet in the final third of the pitch often looks like he has no idea what a football actually is. Like our centre midfielders, they are all good players, but I don’t think they are United good, or of sufficient calibre to compete regularly at the top European level. In the ’99 treble season Blomqvist started almost as many games as Ryan Giggs and his ability to get to the by-line and deliver was, dare I say it, better than Giggs’ in that season. Would any of our current wide players start a game over Giggs, Sharpe or Blomqvist on the left or Kanchelskis, Beckham or Ronaldo on the right? Not a chance! In fact would any of our midfielders make a Premiership midfield four over the options provided by City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs?
Ferguson has often said that he believes there to be “no value in the market” yet in recent years Spurs were able to buy Van der Vaart for £7-11m and Parker for £5.5m, City bought Silva for £24m and Chelsea Mata for £25m. In comparison we paid £18m for Young, £20m for Anderson and £17 for Nani. The figures don’t follow Fergie’s view, especially for Mata and Silva based on their age. In the past close-season people talked about the need for a Scholes replacement, with the Sneijder deal supposedly close all summer long, yet realistically replacements for Scholes and Giggs should have been sough two or three seasons earlier and never arrived. There have been options out there to blend our excellent youth prospects with experienced high level players, as we have done in the past, but United haven’t taken that path recently and have suffered as a consequence.
I don’t want to be the person saying we need multiple new midfield signings and a mass overhaul, but we need something different, something that allows us to compete as the highest level. We need United standard players and we currently don’t have enough of them. We need players that anyone of our domestic or continental rivals would love to have in their team like in years gone by. I’d love to see a left winger who can cross on his left side, such as Bale, allowing any one of Young, Valencia or Nani to play on their stronger right side. In the middle a cultured midfielder who can dominate and dictate play to help the younger players develop, much in the way Cantona did for the “class of 92” would be my other request. I think two summer 2012 signings could make a huge difference and coupled with the right sales should surely be within budget. In the meantime maybe I’ll go play with my Football Manager United midfield (Bale, M’Vila, Pastore & Gotze if you are curious) to cheer me up, or just hide before Fergie smashes a boot at my face for daring to question!
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