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United’s Midfield Dilemma

Pick up a piece of paper, and write down United’s best XI. Picks itself, mostly, doesn’t it? You might be in the Giggs or the Nani camp for the left wing, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that 8 of the names down will appear on everyone’s list. The remaining two? Only the small matter of our central midfield partnership.

This is something that has elicited a lot of discussion in the comment sections recently. I don’t pretend to have the answer or anything approaching it, but what I’d like to do is present my take on the conflicting views and then give you my opinion. Which you can then rip apart (or try to!) in the comments.

As I see it, there are four players (despite Fletcher’s valiant performances recently, he’s never going to be a regular first choice), two general approaches and one big complicating factor. Let’s look at each in turn, and then try to draw the strands together.

The four contenders

All ranked in what I think are the key aspects: Tackling, Ball Retention (I’m thinking here about how well he keeps the ball under pressure, and also pass completion rate), Creativity (what he’s adding to the team going forward), Goal-scoring. I’ve also noted some other relevant points at the end of each.

Paul Scholes
Tackling – 3/10 – has always been dreadful, and is too old to improve now!
Ball Rentention – 10/10 – always seems to have time and space, regardless of pressure, and rarely misplaces a pass.
Creativity – 7/10 – prompts constantly by using the ball quickly and intelligently, but doesn’t crop up in as advanced positions as he used to. Still capable of finding a magic through ball (Milan first leg for Rooney last season, anyone?)
Goal-scoring – 6/10 – again, doesn’t get forward as much as he used to but remains a big threat from range.
Other – getting older now, and you can see the difference in his pitch coverage (and consequently his goal return). Despite everything Fergie says, I can’t see him featuring regularly beyond next season. On his day, though, in a league of his own.

Owen Hargreaves
Tackling – 9/10 – what he was bought for, and what he’s best at.
Ball Rentention – 7/10 – doesn’t try the spectacular, just gives it to his more talented team mates.
Creativity – 4/10 – rarely gets far enough forward to make a difference, and his stock pass goes sideways.
Goal-scoring – 0/10 – not as yet, and with Ronaldo around he’s not going to get many free kicks either.
Other – one word: injuries; we’re not going to see what he’s capable of until he’s fit enough to play 10 games in a row.

Michael Carrick
Tackling – 7/10 – you don’t often see him go to ground, but his positional sense is good and he screens intelligently.
Ball Rentention – 8/10 – has learned a lot from Scholes, but isn’t up there with the master yet.
Creativity – 9/10 – he always looks to pass the ball forward first, and can pick those eye-of-the-needle passes which undo tight defences.
Goal-scoring – 4/10 – picked up the message last season that he needs to contribute, and can score from distance.
Other – a confidence player, who lapsed badly at the start of this season when he found himself dropped for a spell.

Tackling – 7/10 – very aggressive hustler, never gives opponents a moment’s peace
Ball Rentention – 6/10 – more inclined to try flicks or dribbles which don’t come off, but not bad.
Creativity – 8/10 – the only one who can beat a series of players and who will play down the channels as well; very good support for the front players.
Goal-scoring – 2/10 – the floodgates must open soon…the potential’s certainly there.
Other – he’s good this season, so god knows what he could be eventually.

The two approaches

I can see arguments for each of these, but they are broadly:

1. Have a first choice pair, who play 75% of the games together, with others providing ability to rotate and cover for injury.

Pros – first choice pair develop instinctive understanding (Carrick and Scholes had this going on last year, as did our whole Treble-winning midfield – they didn’t even need to look up to know where their mate was going to be)
– consistency also benefits the rest of the team, who know exactly what’s coming from the centre of the park.

Cons – Doesn’t make full use of the talent pool and may cause players to leave
– injuries etc have a more disruptive effect
– see the reasons for option 2 below

2. Pick a partnership based on the match you’re going into.

Pros – can tailor the strengths of the individuals to the requirements of the game (eg Hargreaves for big games to shackle dangerous midfielders, Scholes in games where experience is judged key, etc)
– retains freshness

Cons – just look at Liverpool for the downsides of constant tinkering
– players play as individuals rather than a partnership

As I said at the beginning, I can see arguments for both…I’ll discuss further in my conclusion section.

The complicating factor

Is, of course, injury. Scholes has been out for most of the season so far (which has proved to be a blessing in disguise, since it has allowed Anderson to emerge), and Hargreaves has yet to start more than 2 games in a row. Even if Fergie had decided on a first choice pair, this sort of thing makes it very difficult to implement.


I wrote the above without having a strong idea of where I was going – I was as much musing to myself as anything. But I am going to stick my neck out and say that Carrick and Anderson should be our first choice pair for the majority of matches. My reasoning is as follows:

– They both add a huge amount going forward. I absolutely adore Carrick’s instinct to find a piercing ball forwards to feet – Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez are all good enough to receive this sort of ball with a man at their back and do something with it, and are equally likely to be making runs in behind. I think we will get a lot of goals from Carrick’s passing. Equally, Anderson is a good passer of the ball and a potentially superb dribbler (great upper body strength, a la Rooney) who can support the front players.

– They both do enough defensively. Most teams set up very tight against us, and we’re happy to go man-for-man at the back if needs be, so the attacking penetration is crucial (this is the key argument against Hargreaves, other than injury). Which is not to say they can’t come out on top in a midfield scrap, or hold their own in a physical game.

– Carrick – who is the more controversial choice – is a confidence player. Give him responsibility and a long run in the side and he seems to grow into it. He is also a big game player (witness the two Roma games last season, where he was superb in each leg – a defensive midfield masterclass in the first, and a game-bossing, two-goal performance in the second). What he is not going to be is a useful squad player like Fletcher.

– Both are young and not injury-prone – you really can see them playing 30 games a season with each other without disruption, and doing this for the next 5 seasons. Continuity really makes a difference.

I think the nod to flexibility is that in big games against teams with dangerous midfields, we can lose Giggs/Nani and include Hargreaves as a screen, with Anderson detailed to get up and support the Holy Trinity up front when we have the ball.

But what of Scholes? Well, he has a role to play, but he is past his best and seems to be increasingly injury-prone. He doesn’t make those runs into the box as much anymore, either. As an impact player, an experienced head in some big games and a great alternative he will be unbeatable…but I think his star is waning along with Giggsy’s.

So, here’s my plea to Fergie – start Carrick and Anderson in every game possible, and don’t let the embarrassment of riches at your disposal lead you into tinkering.