The demise of the defensive midfielder at Manchester United

As we sit in the aftermath of that disastrous away leg in Switzerland, the questions are again being asked in relation to the midfield situation at Manchester United. As we all know by now, the result did go wrong, and we saw the giants Manchester United knocked out of Europe from a group in which they were the favourites to qualify. This campaign as well as the drubbing to the hands of Manchester City, where the defence collapsed like a pack of cards in the last 10 minutes, serves to highlight the deficiencies that exist at the heart of the Manchester United midfield. If Barcelona ripping United apart in two European Cup finals was not enough of a wakeup call, the rise of City the ‘noisy neighbours’ must now surely be the internal alarm bells going off in the head of Sir Alex Ferguson.

United players after being knocked out of the Champions League

Many journalists point to the failure to land Sneijder, which may have been more about a refusal to pay the wages than a refusal to pay the transfer fee, as the chance missed by Sir Alex Ferguson to gain parity with his opponents domestically and abroad. Others were available apparently but it would appear United were not interested. Anybody who keeps abreast of matters United will know
about the promise of youth that appears to be ready to rise to the top. We have heard the names of Pogba and Morrison mentioned in whispers from United supporters and apparently Sir Alex feels these players have what it takes to make it at the club. If so these will be the first players to come through since the “you won’t win anything with kids” brigade of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Butt and Nevilles Phil and Gary.

While the arrival of such talents is awaited, the show must still go on. The important central midfield roles are being filled by any midfielder United have that is fit, even Jones and Rooney have filled in when required. John Giles, whose view I respect greatly, feels that Rooney has all the attributes required to become a world class midfielder. He feels Rooney would need to work on some aspects of his game as a midfielder but has every chance of making it should United continue to play him in this position. This solution could be a partial fix for the United midfield however I would contend that without an efficient defensive midfielder the problem will continue to exist. The Rooneys and Sneijders of this world need somebody behind them breaking up the play feeding them the ball to work their magic.

Defensive midfielders of quality have been associated with Manchester United for years. The Ferguson era has seen Robson, Ince and Keane anchor the midfield and give the team the drive to go forward. At other clubs Makalele, Essien, Viera, a fit Hargreaves, Busquets, Diarra are all examples of top defensive midfielders who played at the the highest level and achieved success. In some cases their departure from the clubs where they succeeded most coincided with a decline in the clubs success.

Brian Robson and Paul Ince were both fierce competitors and had a will to win and an inbuilt ability to drive on their team. They both had the ability to use the great football cliché “to take a game by the scruff”. This usually involved some heavy tackling and a few nice words in the ears of team mates. Roy Keane picked up the baton this pair so ably carried and ran faster and better than
previous holders ever did. Both on and off the pitch he was the voice of Ferguson, MUTV interview apart. One imagines that the only voice at some of the halftime team talks was that of Keane and his lilting Cork accent. On the pitch he did the simple things well, there was no flamboyance to his play just sheer grit and a will to win. He was the type of player who one imagines would not ask anybody to do anything that he himself would not do.

Keane and Vieira

His performance in the 99 season away to Juventus will long be talked about. Knowing he would miss the final he drove the team on to recover from 2-0 down to win 2-3. In 2005 he had the infamous tunnel incident with Patrick Viera, a game that Arsenal lost in the tunnel before the game. I have watched this clip many times and Viera almost goes pale under the verbal barrage from Keane. He was loved on the terraces and to this day the chorus “there’s only one Keano” is still sung from the terraces.

Roy Keane left United in 2005 for Celtic. Many felt he would never be replaced, and for many, this is the case. Whilst his departure post an MUTV match analysis was sudden and unexpected, his influence over both sets of teammates and opponents will be hard to replace, but not impossible.

Owen Hargreaves was brought in to United in 2007 to fill this role. Unfortunately for him and United, injuries meant that he only played 27 games in 4 seasons. Michael Carrick has in the main been chosen to play in the pocket in front of the back four. He did not arrive at Old Trafford as a defensive midfielder yet this is the position he now finds himself occupying. Mostly in the Premier League he gets away with his shortcomings but at European level he has been found out, most notably in the two defeats to Barcelona. I do not know Michael Carrick personally and I have no axe to grind with him and he appears to be a nice guy; however he is not now, nor will he ever be, capable of putting his stamp on a game and doing the nitty gritty that a defensive midfielder needs to do. To the same extent Fletcher, Park and Anderson will never be able to dominate games, this is not to take away from their talents as I believe they are effective in other positions.

Who might fill this role you ask? This is not an easy question to answer and even the great man himself, Sir Alex, has not answered it correctly to date. On the season to date Scott Parker looks like he would have been the ideal player at a reasonable cost. I don’t know how he would measure up against Barcelona though. I do get the sense watching him play that he can influence the game and set the tempo albeit he is not the most vocal player I have ever watched. Mascherano and Diarra are other players who spring to mind as capable of fulfilling the role, but I’m not sure they were or are available on a transfer in recent times.

Manchester United have attacking power in abundance with Young, Nani, Valencia, Cleverly, Welbeck, Hernandez, Berbatov, Owen and Rooney. Defensively Vidic (although he will now be sidelined for the rest of the season), Ferdinand, Fabio, Raphael, Smalling, Jones, Evans and Evra there is adequate cover. As January nears Sir Alex needs to wake up and smell the coffee in relation to his defensive midfield. In the past he has been ruthless in letting go players who performed well for the club such as Stam, Ince and Keane. He either refuses to admit he is wrong or he just can’t see that until the defensive midfield area is sorted the City’s and Barcelona’s will be ahead of United for some time to come.

Written by William Horan


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