United's midfield misses the energy provided by Darren Fletcher
Editor's note: This piece yesterday by the terrific Jonathan Wilson brought to mind something I wrote in May after Yaya Toure went through our midfield like a hot knife through butter in last season's title-decider. I still feel nearly everything I wrote then holds true now and that a combative central-midfielder is this team's biggest need at the current moment. Therefore, I've bumped that piece back up to the front page.
Park Ji-sung recently took a lot of stick for what many deemed as a poor performance by him during the likely title-deciding defeat by Manchester City. In addition, some criticism came his way as well after Manchester United performed poorly in their Europa League ties versus Ajax and Athletic Bilbao. In general, the South Korean's form has been disappointing this campaign and it has only been a calendar year since he was in the form of his life during United's run-in last season. However, one thing that has continually failed to be openly discussed is that Park has often been deployed out of position in central-midfield -- as he was versus City, Ajax, and Athletic -- and he's merely been a servant to United's need for energy and combativeness in that area of the pitch. In reality, Park has somewhat masked -- or openly exposed -- the squad's dire need for mobility and ball-winning ability in central-midfield -- at least the need for one that is actually a central-midfielder.
Quite simply, United miss Darren Fletcher -- a lot. Or at least a player of his ilk. Since I began watching the club in the late 1990s, they've typically had some sort of combative player like a Fletcher, Roy Keane, or even Owen Hargreaves compliment a sublime distributor such as Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick. With Fletcher battling illness during the past season-and-a-half, and with Anderson's frequent injuries and lapses in form, United have lacked the necessary industry and bite in their engine room. Besides Park, we've even seen Phil Jones, Wayne Rooney, and Rafael in central-midfield this season -- all are fine and energetic players, but none are naturally central-midfielders. Since last season's run-in, Sir Alex Ferguson's side has mostly gotten by on the superb passing and poise by Scholes, Carrick, and Ryan Giggs but these technical players have been prone to being overrun by physical and mobile counterparts (Yaya Toure bursts to my mind as an example). United need a midfield battler so that they have more tactical options. United need a midfield battler so that an out-of-position player like Park isn't forced into this role during a title-decider.
Since last summer's transfer window, the typical transfer talk by the media and United supporters has been the squad's need for a creative midfielder. That certainly may be true. However, as regular TBB readers might be aware, I've disputed that need for a creative central-attacking midfielder because United's goalscoring chances are generally created from two areas in attack: (1) their wingers and (2) Rooney dropping deep into the space between the lines from his secondary striker role. Fergie's two central-midfielders sit relatively deep, collect the ball from the back four, and their most incisive passes are typically long diagonal balls out to the flanks for the wingers. These two midfielders though are ideally complimentary in Fergie's 4-4-1-1ish system -- one silky distributor and one steely battler. Even if United were to purchase a creative central-attacking-midfielder like Shinji Kagawa, and perhaps move Rooney further forward at times in a 4-2-3-1ish shape when United opt for more midfield structure, they would still need a midfield battler in their side. This sort of player needs to be purchased in the summer because they don't have a dependable one in their squad now.
United cannot go into the season expecting Fletcher to be available because his illness is highly unpredictable and difficult to manage. Any involvement from the Scotsman should merely be treated as a bonus. Ando is... well, not dependable for any long stretch of time and I wouldn't be shocked to see him leave the club in the next year or two. Box-to-box youngster Paul Pogba may be on his way to Juventus and even if he does stay at United, he may be more of a passer than a battler. Tom Cleverley is certainly mobile but he looks to be more of an attacking and driving midfielder. We should all be aware by now that Park simply isn't suited to adequately battle in the center of the park (pun intended!) on a regular basis -- this can only be done on very specific basis (e.g. versus Andrea Pirlo in 2010). Davide Petrucci is an interesting and promising young player but relying on a current Reserves player for next season is risky. United need to buy a player that can immediately impact as a combative central-midfielder.
If you look hard enough, value can be found while searching for such a player. The fantastic Arturo Vidal helped Juventus win the Scudetto this season after his bargain €12 million move there from Bayer Leverkusen during last summer's transfer window. His steel complimenting Pirlo's genius is a good template for what Fergie generally seeks in his own midfield. Scott Parker partnered the sublime Luka Modric this season for Spurs after a mere £5 million move across London last summer *. A quick glance across the Premier League reveals players such as Cheik Tiote or Marouane Fellaini as possible solutions but a look abroad could possibly offer United more value -- although I'd love to see both players in a United shirt next season. Quite simply though, United need to purchase this sort of player during the summer as one remedy to their numerous midfield needs.
* Perhaps more than any other player, this writer badly wishes for Luka Modric to come to Old Trafford this summer. He's the absolute perfect 'Scholes replacement' in my view. That's a discussion for a different need though...