Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson seems to anticipate that Darren Fletcher will make a full recovery after surgery to resolve a chronic illness. If the midfielder does step on the pitch again, it'll be as a holding-midfielder rather than as a familiar rampaging box-to-box one.
First and foremost, the main priority for Darren Fletcher is for him to recover from surgery and hope that it helps him resolve his debilitating ulcerative colitis rather than just relieve symptoms. By all accounts, the Scotland captain is a decent person and it's unfortunate that he's been forced to endure so much physical discomfort these past few years because of his chronic condition. His manager is one of those who are quite fond of him -- here are some comments from Sir Alex Ferguson's Southampton matchday programme notes:
"It hasn’t been an easy journey for him, but he has shown great courage. There isn’t a nicer boy at the club and he's a star professional. All his team-mates wish him well and I am sure the fans join me in wishing him a good recovery and a speedy return to football."
It would obviously be fantastic if Fletcher could return at some point, but we certainly shouldn't count nor depend on it. If he does, though, put on a Manchester United shirt once again, something Sir Alex seems confident about, it'll be as a holding-midfielder:
"The rampaging Fletcher of old has gone but I’m sure he will be a success in a better-paced job. We hope to have him back in action for next season and there will be a different role for him along the lines of how he played this season, sitting in front of the back four as the holding midfielder. Darren coped well during the last few months and he made a return to football [after his initial spell on the sidelines] with 10 senior appearances. His treatment was going well, but the problem surfaced again and the advice was [to] have surgery. The decision was taken with Darren’s long-term health in mind just as much as getting back to his career."
One thing to make clear, just because there are some who seem to lump the two together, a ball-winner is not necessarily a holding-midfielder nor are all holding-midfielder ball-winners.
Andrea Pirlo sits in front of his back three or four for both Juventus and Italy so he can -- I suppose -- be classified as a holding-midfielder. What the legendary Italian is though, more accurately, is a deep-lying playmaker (regista if you prefer) rather than a destructive player that breaks up attacks.
At his best, Fletcher was an industrious box-to-box player that used his energy to screen for passers like Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. He was not, though, a holding-midfielder that sat in front of his defense -- either as a regista nor as a Claude Makelele type (destroyer). 'The rampaging Fletcher of old', as Ferguson described him, won't be making a return. That's too bad as that's something this current United team badly needs.
It shouldn't be too hard to imagine what Fletch's role will be if he returns: he'll be a calm presence in front of the back four that is both positionally sound and tidy in distribution in either a midfield diamond or midfield trio. This was essentially his role in ten appearances this season. The Scotsman, though, was mostly used in rotation against weaker European competition in the Champions League group-stage ties or in early-round League Cup clashes. Therefore, we never really got to see how he would cope against against elite competition with (relatively) limited mobility while in a new role. We can speculate that he might have been fine had he used his experience and the same resolve he's so clearly demonstrated in the past, but it's something that we don't know for certain. This will be a question if he makes a return.
Another thing to ponder is whether Fletcher can be a productive player in a two-man midfield, something that Ferguson has clearly preferred during his 26+ year reign at Old Trafford. Will he offer enough mobility so that his midfield partner isn't overburdened with too much responsibility? Sure, he could sit deep in a double-pivot but he would need a dynamic partner that could provide a driving and vertical presence. Anderson fits that description, but while clearly talented, he's not one that can always be relied upon -- whether that is due to inconsistent form or continual injuries.
If Fletcher makes a comeback, he'll certainly have to prove -- at the very least -- that he can be a useful squad player at one of the world's biggest football clubs. The toughest obstacle, though, will be to overcome his condition so that he can regain full health. If he can overcome the latter, a loud Old Trafford ovation awaits him when he tries to prove himself as a holding-midfielder.