Monday, 11 March 2013

What next for the 'engine' room?

On Sunday afternoon, we witnessed the weakest Manchester United performance from central midfield in a very long time. After 45 minutes, the first choice pair of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley look jaded, tired and useless in possession, something that has never been said about Carrick this season, with him being one of United's most consistent performers in the centre of the park. However, on Sunday, the dark side of Carrick appeared and other than his majestic pass to Javier Hernandez in the 5th minute, he did not take ahold of the game as he has done so effortlessly throughout the season, which begs the question, has he been overplayed? Carrick looked tired and drained and gave away possession so effortlessly, which has been uncharacteristic of him this season. The same goes for Tom Cleverley. Being Sir Alex's preferred choice to partner Carrick in the middle, the Cleverley and Carrick combination has been the most common throughout this season. With this season being Cleverley's first one without any sort of major injury problems in the heart of the United midfield, he seems to have lost his edge and guile that had made him, as well as Carrick, United's fulcrum in the defence to attack transition. In can be said that Sundays performance could be the start of a potentially nervous end of season finale, only if the midfield play as poorly as they did.

Carrick assist for Hernandez on Sunday

Although the whole team played relatively atrocious after going two goals up, both Carrick and Cleverley had distinctively awful games, compared to the rest of the squad, with the exception of Antonio Valencia. But why now? Just as United enter the critical period in their season, which has been spear headed with the desire to wrestle back the Premier League crown from their "Noisy neighbours" Manchester City, their most impressive and consistent partnership seems to be breaking down at exactly the wrong time. All in all, in can be said that the result of such an dreadful display can be pinned down on fatigue. This season, United have played 41 games, of which Michael Carrick has played in 35 of them and Cleverley has appeared in 29. It is clear from these stats that these two have pinned down their spaces in the first eleven, which has meant that Anderson and Paul Scholes have been relegated to the bench. With Carrick and Cleverley seemingly impossible to displace from the first team, questions have to be asked of Anderson's and Scholes's roles in the first team, the same with Darren Fletcher. Fletcher's illness problems have been well documented of the last two years and it seems as if they have caught up with him and he wont return as the box-to-box midfield dynamo he was. Where as for Anderson, it has looked like he has been unable to shake off his weight, fitness and inconsistency problems enough to guarantee even a rotation place alongside Cleverley. For Scholes, he came out of retirement last January to help United through a midfield injury crisis, and the problem seemed to have been fixed in the short run, but has now reappeared. It is now time to ask the question of whether or not having Anderson, Fletcher or Scholes in the squad is a viable option, or are we to look at replacements in the summer.

The last time United spent money on a central midfield player was none other than Anderson and Owen Hargreaves, back in 2007, meaning it has been 6 years since Sir Alex has relinquished any sort of money, on what has been considering United's weakest position. With Scholes and Fletcher possibly retiring at the end of the season and Anderson possibly being allowed to leave for a £10m or so fee, it would free up three spaces in the midfield. With Carrick growing older and Cleverley showing signs of fatigue each season, all three holes in the squad will need to be utilised. With Fletcher looking like being the least likely to leave, it could be possible that only two signings will be needed.

The obvious choice, and rightfully, is Kevin Strootman of PSV. He has developed in a year and half into PSV's most important player, other than Dries Mertens, leading them to second in the Eredivise with a mammoth 81 goals scored in 26 games and conceding 29, the third best in the league. In Strootman, United have an accomplished Dutch national team player, who still has a lot of time to develop. His marauding runs from defence to attack, with an eye for a pass, as well as a shot, make him the complete box to box midfielder, as his 6 goals and 7 assists in the Eredivise show, much like Fletcher in his earlier days. With Strootman costing no more than (appox) £17m, it would be a low risk transfer with the money available and the deal would seem even more likely in the fact that United's transfer policy of late has been to sign players with a potential resale value, with the exception of Robin van Persie. Also, with PSV snapping up Sweden's impressive U21 central midfield captain, Oskar Hiljemark, a perceived replacement for Strootman, in January (PSV confirm Hiljemark capture), it seems all but likely that Strootman will depart Eindhoven in the summer for pastures new, and he may yet be heading towards Manchester.

Kevin Strootman - PSV's midfield dynamo

With the addition of Strootman into the squad, it still leaves space for one more midfielder, which I believe can be Ilkay Gundogan of Borussia Dortmund, but with BVB having a strict no selling policy of their star players until they enter the final year of their contracts, leads me to say that this will be the most unlikeliest of deals, for the time being. A more than adequate replacement, to say the least would be Christian Eriksen of Ajax, who announced eariler in the season that he would not sign a new contract at Ajax (Eriksen says no to new Ajax contract). With his contract running out at the end of next season, Ajax will probably look to cash in on their star player rather than losing him on a free next summer. With this lingering over the Ajax hierarchy, Eriksen, much like Strootman, would not command a high fee, and being only 21 could become a regular in United's first team for the next ten years. I believe that 2012/13 has been Eriksen's year of maturity as he is no longer the attack minded 'number 10', but he has developed into a midfielder in the mould of Anderson and Cleverley that can balance attacking and defensive capabilities correctly and of a higher quality too. The 7 goals and 11 assists he has amassed in the Eredivise are a testament to his abilities. However, whether or not he can adapt his game into the 'number 8' role will have to be seen, but with him being brought up through the infamous Ajax academy with the 'Total Football' philosophy being drilled into him from a young age, teaching him to be capable of covering all positions on a football pitch, he will surely be able to overcome the challenge of becoming an out and out midfielder.

Eriksen strike vs Man City in the Champions League group stage

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