The Midfield Problems at Manchester United
This is not a crisis, but amidst the back-to-back defeats suffered by Manchester United over the last week to Norwich and Galatasaray – albeit a weakened team fielded in the Champions League – the midfield problems are again high on the agenda. This is a recurring theme after such results and there is certainly no smoke without fire. Too often have the likes of Rooney, Hernandez, and RVP (this season) spared United’s blushes. Paul Scholes – 37 at the time – coming out of retirement and finishing last season as perhaps United’s most impressive midfielder, must have raised concerns for Sir Alex. These concerns would have been renewed at Carrow Road at the weekend when Scholes was brought on to try and rescue the game when trailing 1-0. Despite the recovery of Darren Fletcher and the huge potential of Tom Cleverly and summer-signing Shinji Kagawa, United could certainly do with a Keane-like presence in the middle of the park.
It comes as no surprise then that United are constantly linked with midfielders, with the latest being Celtic’s Victor Wanyama, who is winning the plaudits after his Champions League performances. The pace, power, and protection provided by Wanyama resembles a certain, Yaya Toure, who was crucial in City’s title winning campaign. His partnership with De Jong and Barry provided a solid base for the likes of Silva and Aguero to express themselves in the final third last season. Although losing De Jong is a big loss for City, United are still playing catch up. This is not a surprise with City spending £116 million on midfielders since 2008 (signing the likes of Toure, De Jong, Barry, Nasri, and Silva) and United spending just £21 million (Kagawa and Powell).
The game may have changed since the days of Roy Keane, but with Carrick deemed as the protector of the back four – and the deep-lying playmaker – it is questionable whether he offers enough protection for a side with such attacking flair and – at times – defensive frailties. Likened to Pirlo and labelled as “Mr. Consistent” by some, Carrick keeps everything ticking for United, sitting in front of the back four and linking defence and attack. Carrick knows how to keep the ball and had a pass completion rate of 90.1% last season, higher than the likes of Parker (89.5%), Modric (87.4%), Lampard (86.9%), and Barry (86.4%).
A statistical comparison for this season between Carrick (excluding the two games played at CB), Toure (similar player to United target Wanyama), and Arteta (who deploys a similar position at Arsenal) is shown in the table. I have included statistics for Darren Fletcher from the corresponding games in the 10/11 season, where Fletcher was a prominent figure in the United midfield, to identify the significance of the Scotsman returning to full fitness and the impact this could have on United’s midfield problems. United conceded 13 goals after 12 games in the 10/11 season, compared to 17 goals after 12 games this season.
Excluding the games where Carrick was deployed as a CB, Carrick has a pass completion rate of 89.40%, comparing favourably to Fletcher (85.27%), but unfavourably to Arteta (92.84%) and Toure (89.93%). Carrick has the lowest pass completion rate in the final third (75.20%), creating the joint fewest chances (13) and failing to score or make an assist. With United going behind and having to chase the game in 6 of the opening 12 league games this season, it appears that United are not relying on their “deep-lying playmaker” to save the day, although it has to be noted that Carrick has played 71 minutes less than Fletcher (10/11 season) and 180 minutes less than Toure and Arteta.
Defensively however, Carrick is superior to Toure and marginally superior to Fletcher, with only Arteta ahead on tackles won, successful clearances, interceptions, and blocks. With Carrick and Fletcher (10/11 season) often partnering attack minded midfielders, such as Scholes and Cleverly (12/13 season), the onus is on them to protect the back four and break up the play. Compare this to City, where Toure often partners the defence-minded Barry, which provides more assurance and solidarity in the midfield. Arteta has broken up play exceptionally well this season and is truly living up to the “deep-lying playmaker” role, creating 15 chances, scoring 1, and assisting 2 in the process.
United are not in crisis, but their midfield problems could be hindering the potential for a very successful season. The return of Fletcher is a plus, but is unlikely to solve these problems. Statistically, Carrick performs reasonably well at protecting the back four and keeping possession, but offers little in the final third, perhaps due to the lack of defence-minded midfielders at United. With Scholes not getting any younger and Kagawa, Cleverly, and Anderson lacking the physical presence that United visibly require, Victor Wanyama would certainly not go a miss. Not only would this inject some much needed pace and power to the midfield, but his defensive capabilities could provide the solidarity needed to pip the title back from City.