Tuesday 18 January 2022

Man Utd's midfield malaise is of their own making

 Picture the scene. You've recently acquired a new car for an exorbitant sum of money. It sits proudly on your driveway, spick and span, the envy of the neighbours. It's your pride and joy and you can't wait to open the throttles and listen to her roar. 

But there's just one problem - the engine doesn't function properly. Sometimes it doesn't start at all. Sometimes it splutters into life and on the odd occasion you get a couple of hundred yards down the road before giving up the ghost. 

Suddenly, your new motor, your newest infatuation which was supposed to bring you unbridled happiness, is next to useless. You thought you might be able to get by without needing work done on the engine, but the problem has now become too big to simply ignore. 

It's often said a football team's midfield is very much like that engine: one which is well oiled and nicely put together with plenty of fuel will keep you going for hours and will rarely be found wanting. One that's old, much less than the sum of its parts and needs frequent inspection will never get you very far at all. 

A football team's midfield is often the single most important component part when it comes to success - or otherwise.
And so we come to Manchester United, circa (or should that be circus) 2022. A season we went into with high hopes after last term's surprise second placed finish and the summer signings of Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and - most seismically of all - Cristiano Ronaldo. Finally, this would be the year Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United (as we still were then), would come to the title party. Or so we all thought. 

But yet, even as we thumped five past Illan Meslier and Leeds in an opening day blitz, there were signs of a tap dripping in the Reds midfield. Not quite a torrent of flood water, but certainly the trickle of a stream - the team was already starting to leak. 
With the benefit of hindsight - what a wonderful thing it is - the Ronaldo signing should've been shelved in pursuit of upgrading the midfield. In truth, United's midfield hasn't been right since 2011 - quite how we won the bastard league two years later with an axis of Tom Cleverley and Anderson speaks volumes of Sir Alex Ferguson's genius. Ironically, both of those players would walk into this current team over this shower.

Since then, United's midfield malaise has been only exacerbated - if something ceases to function, can it be said to exist at all? 
Louis van Gaal signed Morgan Schneiderlin and an ageing, injury prone Bastian Schweinsteiger (what's the opposite of a dynamic duo), although Ander Herrera proved a success. Selling him was a mistake, as was the failure to adequately replace him. 

Nemanja Matic has footwork as cumbersome as an England batsman, Fred is hard working but limited and Scott McTominay is more box-to-box than an out and out central defensive midfielder. The latter was unavailable for Saturday's trip to Villa Park but, for all his critics, remains United's most competent engine room schemer. Matic, in lieu of the Scot at Villa, was hindered by an early booking and was cooked by half-time as Villa's John McGinn and Douglas Luiz seized control of the midfield and, as a result, saw their side take charge of the tie.

A substitution was urgent but there was no one else and so Matic had to stay on. The veteran Serbian was signed by Jose Mourinho and performed admirably in his first couple of seasons at Old Trafford but simply doesn't have the legs or the fitness levels for the heat of battle over 90 minutes now. He's too easily bypassed and, without an elite combination of creator and enforcer, is it any wonder why United never dominate or control games? Matic is 33 and Villa's duo of McGinn and Luiz had an average ave of a mere 23. In short, Matic is unsustainable over 90 minutes. 

Every team with even a half decent midfield will fancy their chances against us. United downgraded from a controlling team in the first half hour to a counter-attacking one but, by the end, weren't really any sort of team at all.

For all the pitfalls of Solskjaer's tried and tested 4-2-3-1, utilised sporadically under Ralf Rangnick, it at least maximised Bruno Fernandes. The problem was behind the front four where another midfield combination proved powerless to prevent the opposition from running riot.
Matic was underused in the first half of the season but is now chronically overused having started three of the last four games. For half an hour at Villa, he held the fort, enabling Fred to uncharacteristically roam forwards, with Villa caught under his press which led to the second goal. 

The midfield has been left to melt away for years and its malaise is entirely of our own making. Its a position so untenable urgent action is required this month - it can no longer be left until the summer. Denis Zakaria, Amadou Haidara or both of them - anyone who can run, tackle, pass and has the requisite stamina would offer an upgrade on what we have at present and address the imbalance. Declan Rice and his West Ham side come to Old Trafford on Saturday in what could effectively be a United job interview for the Hammers highly rated 23-year-old.

There can be no more talk of the "right player" becoming available. Anyone's better than our current options and this is, after all, a club who brought in Odion Ighalo two Januarys ago. A legitimate argument can be made we have the worst midfield in the league.

 For all United's stellar cast, there is a fault line running through the team which simply cannot be ignored.

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