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Jack: There is a deep-lying problem in midfield for Man Utd

Kristian Jack
12/8/2013 11:58:56 AM
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In the sixth minute of the game, Marouane Fellaini picked up the ball near the centre circle, attempted to run deep into Everton's territory to start another Manchester United attack but immediately saw the ball stolen away from him from James McCarthy.

McCarthy, a player who played some games in the second tier for Wigan at the start of this season, would go on to shine inside Everton's midfield, outplaying the man he was brought in to replace, on one of the grandest stages in English football.

On Saturday, it was fitting that Manchester United's most recent dagger into the chest was delivered by Frenchman Yohan Cabaye, a wonderfully gifted central midfielder who put on an outstanding effort for Newcastle at Old Trafford.

Around the Premier League on Saturday, numerous examples of midfields taking over games were on show. For Tottenham at Sunderland, Paulinho and Moussa Dembele ran the game in the second half, Stoke got back into their match against Chelsea by exposing a double pivot of Ramires and John Obi Mikel, while Liverpool lost momentum in their home match against West Ham once Steven Gerrard departed through injury.

This is football in today's era. Central midfield is the most important zone on the field, where turnovers are caused, counter-attacks are started, defensive cover is needed and vision with the ball is demanded.

Most teams in the Premier League play in systems that can be labeled 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, where at least three men centrally are asked to work as a unit, both defensively and in attack. It is the engine that motors the team forward and back.

At Manchester United this season this has usually been done by two central midfielders and Wayne Rooney.
Rooney has looked very good and if you were to make up a list of United's problems he would certainly be at the bottom labeled as ‘Rooney – only concern is how to play him with van Persie against superior teams.' The English striker has proven in recent years (see vs Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012 for reference) to be a liability when it comes to making up a midfield three in a defensive manner but against the majority of inferior Premier League teams this is not a problem.

Last season for example, against the 13 teams who finished between eighth and 20th in the Premier League, Manchester United, playing 4-4-2, won an astonishing 22 of 26 matches, claiming a total of 69 points from a possible 78.

However, upon closer inspection there were matches where they looked outrun in midfield and allowed a goal through a defensive lapse, but these were quickly forgotten about because United painted over the cracks by banging in goals at the other end.

It happened against Fulham, when Dembele ran the game before getting a move to Spurs (Fulham led 1-0, lost 3-2), it happened against Liverpool and Southampton in second halves at Old Trafford (games won 2-1) and against Newcastle who led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 last season before losing 4-3.

On Boxing Day the United system was handing their opponents regular gifts with numerous goal scoring chances but once again, their attacking heavyweights powered their way out of trouble.

United would go on to win the game through Javier Hernandez in the 90th minute, who, like on Saturday, partnered van Persie up front for United that day.

That however, is where the similarities ended for the pair. Last season the service towards them was remarkably different to the amount of passes they received in Saturday's 1-0 home loss.

Sixty-seven passes to 36 is a remarkable difference over 90 minutes:

Hernandez's winning goal last December would give his side three more points won from a losing position and in total United would go on to claim 29 points from losing positions last season.

On the surface that seems like a remarkably impressive number, it is after all the second highest of all-time in the Premier League behind Newcastle's 01-02 season of 34 points, but you must have flaws in your team to be behind many times to get to that number.
United's flaws remain this season but because they cannot power themselves out of trouble with goals they have been magnified to the level where action is now required.

Two seasons ago United were stunned by a Champions League group stage elimination after Benfica and Basel ran through their midfield and scored eight goals between them in four matches. United were sent into the Europa League and would go on to again be exposed in similar fashion, losing back-to-back home games to technically superior teams, Ajax and Athletic Bilbao.

In those matches United looked far too English. A timid, reactionary team lacking true post-to-post midfielders who excel in both the attack and defensive side of the game.

It is an accusation that remains even more glaring two years on. The world's best teams today all have world class deep-lying playmakers who control matches with the combination of brilliant, forward thinking vision and equally outstanding footballing intelligence without the ball. In central midfield, Real Madrid has Luka Modric, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, Barcelona has Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi, Bayern Munich has Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Toni Kroos, Manchester City have Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.

Manchester United has Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Tom Cleverley or Phil Jones.

Carrick remains very important to United, a fine player in the Premier League whose calmness and passing ability has been sorely missed lately. Fellaini remains a mysterious buy, a player whose escalated price came from playing further forward but who wants to play in central midfield, despite not yet excelling at the attributes needed to play there. Cleverley has now started nine of their 15 league games this season and isn't anywhere near the quality of, at least, 20 other Premier League midfielders who have (and will continue to do so) the beating of the United youth product. Jones remains a promising player who will likely move to centre-back as he ages, but certainly does not have the offensive abilities to play regularly in central midfield for a team like Manchester United.

None of these players are not close to being deep lying playmakers and none are anywhere close to being world class.

United badly need at least one, and most likely two, of these caliber players as soon as possible.

As last season showed the team is more than capable of going on a long successful run this season, beating inferior teams and that will help them climb towards a likely finish amongst the top four but what absolutely must not be forgotten again next summer is what was ignored in recent transfer windows.

It is time to stop the likes of Dembele, McCarthy, and Cabaye running the show in games at Old Trafford. While United were spending a whopping 65 million pounds (the cost of Smalling, Young, Jones, Zaha and Powell) on mediocre, or unproven English talent the last four summers, many other teams have not only caught them up in central midfield, but now overtaken them.

A club like United should be close to the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern, but through bad buys and neglecting a key area they are not even close and are left exposed by average teams in their own league.

It is time to get to work on a very deep-lying problem.

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