Of all the signings Fergie has made this summer. The one likely to prove the most crucial was his securing of long term target Owen Hargreaves. The much marginalised and underrated, Canadian born English man is actually the one Roy Keane replacement Fergie has been looking for since Keane started losing his powers back in 2004.
Though it is clear that the one thing United would probably never replace about Keane in the team is his leadership and influence, his playing game was completely replaceable.
What made Keane special in his style of play was his ability to run all day, breaking up attacks and launching them with tenacity and consistency. Keeping his play simple while keeping United driving forward and ticking over. In many ways he was like the hidden conductor in chief of the side. His astute game reading was key in helping intercept attacks. Physically he would also disrupt opponents attacks, with constant harrying and tough tackling, while also driving forward to help the attack, with his vision providing a cutting edge to United very few defensive minded midfielders possessed in the final third. To top it all he was a box to box player. While also being so good defensively he was like an extra defender on pitch.
Anyone who has watched Hargreaves at Bayern for years knows the true reason behind Fergie’s interest in the player. In truth Hargreaves is possibly the only player who has played at the highest level who most directly mimics Keane’s game. Like the great one, Hargreaves has an incredible engine, a menacing tackle and astute game reading. Like Keane he keeps his passing simple, never ever opting for the difficult pass unless it is the only option, a thing that (unlike in Keane’s case) deceives people into thinking he is a limited player. Like Keane when on form, he keeps his side ticking over with a constant supply of ball to the more attacking players in the side, while getting into physical battles and disrupting the midfield play of the opponents, while protecting his defence like a female bear protecting her cubs. To top it all he is so good defensively like Keane he would be comfortable in the back four. And what Hargreaves lacks in terms of leadership that Keane had, he makes up for with his free kicks and his two-footedness. And last, but not least, he loves to get forward and supports the attack in a similar, and as effective, fashion.
Back in 2002, Fergie brought Veron to partner Keane to add a sophistication to United’s midfield while facing continental sides. A platform in front of which a Bergkamp/Cantona like player like Scholes would excel. Giving United a sort of 5 man midfield while not really moving too far away from his beloved 4-4-2 formation, brought him many a success. In other words, he wanted to combine Keane’s simple but tenacious class, with Veron’s artistry. Unfortunately, it never really worked on a consistent basis. But there were times where it did, like in Europe, and eventually in early 2003, when that platform with Scholes in front of it, was pretty awesome.
This time around when he chased Carrick and Hargreaves, getting Carrick first and then Hargreaves, he is attempting to do the same thing. Some say he is trying to imitate the Pirlo-Gattuso partnership Milan has. But in many ways they are a different animal. For one Gattuso as dominant as he is a pretty limited a player vision wise while Pirlo is weaker than Carrick defensively. In the long term, from a combo of Carrick and Hargreaves, Fergie will get what he should have got in the Veron-Keane partnership he tried to build. While in the short term he will be recreating the Keane-Scholes platform that made United rule Europe in the late 90’s.
Carrick like Veron is a passing artist, good defensively compared to most playmakers and brilliant going forward. Against Roma last season United fans got a glimpse of what Carrick can really do when liberated from the role of merely covering Scholes. In combining him with Hargreaves, long term United will have a shield capable of protecting the United defence from any attack, while being a physically match for any side, able to disrupt opponents play, while being the perfect platform to launch wave after wave of United attacks, like Roma witnessed at OT in their 7-1 drubbing. That night the platform that was built by Carrick and Fletcher made it easy for our make shift defence and marauding attack to operate. Yet that was only with the in experienced Fletcher alongside Carrick.
Alongside the experienced Hargreaves this can only be much much better. And in the presence of Hargreaves, Scholes will once again be able to burst forward from midfield like he did in the pre-Veron era. Moreover, to top it all off, United have the ultimate Bergkamp/Cantona like character in Rooney to place, in front of such a platform.
All in all, just like Carrick’s arrival last summer, Hargreaves purchase might prove to be the difference between this new United team Fergie is building, making the next great leap in fulfilling its potential, or just remaining where it is now: A team with great potential.
Hargreaves might not start like a house on fire, since he will need to adjust to the English game, but make no qualms about it, as the season wears on, people will finally see what Fergie chased for so hard last season. Keane’s true replacement.
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