The Death Of The Defensive Midfielder?


By Matthew Jones

WITH Shinji Kagawa signed, many critics and fans alike believe Manchester United will shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation from the old faithful 4-4-2 this season. Midfield has been addressed this summer but perhaps not in the way many of us would prefer or had predicted. What we’ve really missed since Roy Keane left is an all-conquering, box-to-box midfielder. But with the seeming tactical shift and Tom Cleverley having an excellent Olympics and finally looking fighting fit, will the two holding midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 and Darren Fletcher’s sad demise spell the death knell for United’s need for a midfield warrior.

Whisper it quietly, but Cleverley has come through a string of games unscathed and, more importantly, he’s put in some impressive performances for Team GB at the Olympic Games.

Every Manchester United supporter knows that as far as transfer targets go, midfield has been the area that has been crying out for attention, not just this summer, but for far too long. Sir Alex Ferguson has brought in one of his top targets and a top talent in Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund, while he also beat other top clubs to the signing of highly thought of English youngster Nick Powell from Crewe Alexandra.

With those two in the bag, most of the Red Devils’ faithful would have expected Fergie to bring in a top class defensive midfielder, a battler, a warrior, a take no prisoners, wear his heart on his sleeve type of hero we thought the club had signed when Owen Hargreaves arrived from Bayern Munich in 2007 and the breed of player we’ve been missing since Roy Keane’s controversial Old Trafford exit.

There was talk of talented Dutch protégé Kevin Strootman, an energetic box to box midfielder with an eye for goal who plays for PSV Eindhoven. After Euro 2012, there was a lot of rumour that we were guaranteed to sign Portugal’s Joao Moutinho of FC Porto. We’ve also been linked with the likes of Danielle De Rossi of Roma, Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez and Real Madrid’s former Chelsea and Portsmouth misfit Lassana Diarra.

But since Powell and Kagawa arrived in quick succession, surprisingly, all the talk has been of more attacking targets being tracked, particularly Brazil’s teenage sensation Lucas Moura and even Arsenal captain Robin van Persie. Indeed one or even both of these potential deals seem to be in advanced stages. Fergie left assistant Mike Phelan in charge of United for their fourth pre-season game of the season against Valerenga, of Norway, on Sunday as he was said to be attending to ‘other club business’. I think we all know what that translates as. Media sources was awash with alleged medicals and imminent deals for the exciting Sao Paulo attacking midfielder but it remains to be seen how much validity there is in this.

It is clear, however, that United are certainly interested in the 19-year-old. The papers in the last few weeks have been littered with fragments of news surrounding Moura, from delegations from his club flying into Manchester and vice versa, fees being agreed or negotiated, claims from his camp that he wants a switch to United more than any other suitor and even quotes appearing of how much he enjoyed playing at Old Trafford with the Brazil Olympics team during the tournament.

Perhaps less so van Persie, who Arsenal would be loath to sell to a domestic rival. Like Moura though, there is more than just fanciful rumour to this story. United have been cut to odds on favourites with many bookmakers to be RvP’s new destination, while Ferguson himself has come out and admitted they made a bid for the Dutchman to Arsenal earlier in the summer.

Now I’ll probably attract widespread condemnation from Arsenal fans for saying this – I already enraged my Gooner supporting brother – but most Reds will agree with me. We don’t need van Persie. It seems silly to say that considering the season he’s just had but, unlike midfield which as I’ve said has been crying out for attention for years, we’re adequately stocked in the striking department.

Owen’s gone and Berbatov looks likely to follow him out of the Old Trafford exit door but Danny Welbeck made encouraging progress last season and even though Javier Hernandez seemed to suffer from second season syndrome (as well as being struck down with several unfortunate injuries), he’s been a success at United and together with Rooney and our seeming shift towards a 4-2-3-1 formation next season with the arrival of Kagawa, we may end up only playing with one up top. I’ll come back to the formation argument in a bit as it’s a large part of the story’s thread.

Part of me thinks ‘of course I’d love to see van Persie in a United shirt’, he would undeniably add a touch of class to the team, would score goals, and with him being in the last year of his contract, we’d get him for a good deal. On the downside, I wouldn’t want a guy –  pushing 30 and who,  let’s not forget, despite his astonishing season, has only played one fully fit season in Arsenal’s colours – hampering the development of Manchester lad Welbeck and Chicarito.

There’s no doubt Moura’s a sensation, all the analysts and hype, not to mention YouTube videos, seem to back that up, but the £30m fee quoted to prise him away is huge, especially for a 19-year-old. That’s the same price we paid for Berbatov, an established forward, and Rio Ferdinand, who was already a star when we bought him.

Gone are the days when the top European clubs could raid the South American teams for their young gems at a pittance – Oscar’s £25m move to Chelsea earlier this summer proving that business for South American clubs these days is booming. Still, I think £30m for Lucas is steep and with finances tighter for United in recent times than they have been for a long time, I think it would be too big a gamble.

Also, much like the van Persie argument, do we really need Moura? Yes he’s quick, full of tricks, has an eye for a pass and a goal, and looks like a top talent and can play anywhere across the forward line, but with Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani, we’re blessed with a very talented corps out wide.

Still, it is good to be linked with these Brazilian wonderkids and top names and nice to see that, despite the doom-mongering and stories that we can’t compete financially, we are serious about splashing the cash.

Above all else though, my biggest bone of contention with our pursuits of van Persie and Moura is that more importantly, as touched upon at the beginning and in other articles I’ve written, we need a Roy Keane type figure in the middle of the park, even more so I would argue now that it seems unlikely Darren Fletcher will ever play for us again.

This is where I come back to the shift in formation, or the possibility of it.

The pursuit and acquisition of Kagawa seemed to identify a change in the way United will line up this season. Kagawa is not an out and out forward, nor is he a midfielder. He can play out wide if needs be, as has been seen while on international duty for Japan, but he does not fit into a more rigid 4-4-2 system. He’s been a star for Dortmund and there’s a lot of buzz about his arrival so he’s definitely going to be a key player next season. So if he doesn’t fit into a 4-4-2 and we aren’t going to be buying any defensive midfielders, and with the pursuit of Moura, most observers believe we’ll go with the 4-2-3-1, playing one out and out striker, with an attacking midfielder/second striker/forward lining up behind, two widemen and two holding midfielders.

Instead of a defensive hard man, a no nonsense, take no prisoners sort of type, this is where Tom Cleverley could be the answer.

In a 4-4-2 we played last season, we either had Cleverley, Anderson, Scholes or Carrick playing in the middle for us. All similar players. In the absence of Fletcher, we had no snap, no bite, and we were overrun in some big games, particularly in the Champions League and Europa League. Sure, we had grace, style and skill, but against the likes of Manchester City and particularly in Europe, our inability to press the ball saw us out-battled in the middle, a most unwelcome trait that has become a United burden.

With a 4-2-3-1, the two holding midfielders would not be the only barrier between the forward and back line. We’d have energy in the top three – be it Kagawa, Moura, Nani, Valencia, Young – to flood back into midfield to both collect the ball off the holding players and start attacks as well as help those two holding players when under pressure.

With the likes of Carrick, Scholes, Anderson and Cleverley forming part of a two-man wall in front of the back four and being able to concentrate on controlling the tempo of the game, as opposed to having to worry about protecting the defence while at the same time building attacks, it would take the pressure off them and with these four players, or at least Cleverley, Scholes and Carrick, being probably close to our three best distributors of the ball, they would be left to concentrate on what they do best.

It was said last year, but this is a really important season ahead for Cleverley. With Scholes still brilliant but nearing the end of his career, Anderson walking a very tight tightrope with his career in the balance at Old Trafford and Carrick the wrong side of 30 and also unable to really take any game by the scruff of the neck by himself, the 23-year-old represents the future.

He’s always had the talent, no one will argue that. He was Watford’s player of the year three years ago when he was on loan at Vicarage Road. He had a successful season on loan at Wigan the season after, proving he had the talent to play at Premier League level, and he had a very encouraging start to last season. He and Anderson started in midfield and formed an impressive partnership, only curtailed when both of their seasons were affected by injury.

Contrary to popular belief, Cleverley is not injury prone either. Most of his absences can be explained by impact injuries, knocks and tackles that have seen him miss large chunks of action. He doesn’t suffer from strains and niggles.

He had quite a few bumps and bruises during the Olympics tournament but emerged unscathed and improved game upon game, along with the likes of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey in the Great Britain midfield.

I always thought of Cleverley as a more attacking midfielder and even though we’ve seen him capable of playing there, his real strengths lie in his ability to keep the ball, find gaps and feed the forwards, traits that make him ideal to play as one of the two in the 4-2-3-1.

Like me, I’m sure many United fans would love to wake up tomorrow with the news that Martinez or De Rossi have penned a deal with the club. But above my desire to see a player of that ilk wear the United red is my faith in Ferguson and his plans for the coming season. We may still see some frenzied transfer activity involving United in the next week or so but as for the middle of midfield, it looks as though we’re done for the summer.

It may not be what many of us wanted or predicted but the main thing is that we have brought in more midfielders and are bringing in more talent to beef up the squad. I’m a big fan of Cleverley and if he and Scholes, Carrick and Anderson are going to be relied upon to be our holding midfielders, then that’s a pretty talented list of footballers so perhaps a defensive midfielder is not the greatest of our concerns anymore.

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  1. At the end of last season fergie himself said he’s never used a defensive midfielder in 25 years at united and is not about to start it just because people are calling for. He went on to explain about its all about interception not tackling in the modern game.

  2. The Silent Prophet on

    Yup have to agree with Kiz, Lets not forget we didn’t need an all conquering box to box midfielder in the last 5 seasons, getting to 3 CL finals and lifting 3 Prem titles. Yes we had Owen Hargreaves, but we only had him for one season and in the CL Final in 2008 I seem to remember him playing on the right of Midfield whilst Carrick and Scholes played in the middle, Scholes subing for Giggs in ET. Look at Barcelona, they made Toure surplus to requirements for being a defensive mid. In my view the Roy Keanes and Steven Gerards of this world, as good as they are are, or were, are becoming a dieing breed. Right or wrongly only time will tell. But as Football governing bodies seem to find more ways to reduce the promience of good hard tackles its hard to tell if this type of midfielder has a place in the modern game. This is sad because I love hard tackles, as long as they are fair and hard I dont see a problem with it but thats just my view.

  3. I understand your point. Even if we could have our pick of defensive midfielders who would it be? They don’t really exist anymore.

    But one thing is for sure, based on our current midfield talent Keane and Ince would walk into our team no matter what formation we play.

    They were not only great players, but they were characters, winning the midfield battle was personal to them. They had the courage to “fight” anyone they came up against. I’m afraid in this day these charaters don’t exist. We have a generation of soft spoilt people brought up in front of their playstations.

    Sadly, I cam’t even say that there is a player right now that I can relate to consider a hero. When the chips are down this Man Utd team tends not to come back fighting.

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