A brave new world awaits under the stewardship of Louis van Gaal next summer, but regardless of who the Dutchman moves for in the summer, an existing flaw looks set to carry through into his reign: a weakness in midfield.
Even if reports are to be believed that Kevin Strootman could be on his way from AS Roma—a deal that Manchester United somehow failed to combat, let alone hijack—it will take more than one man to suitability protect the middle from the secondary threats of injury crises and suspensions.
Fortunately, the perfect understudy for the Dutch box-to-box midfielder could already be at the club, and judging by the reaction to his performance in the final of the U-21 Premier League against Chelsea, his days of being a lesser-known academy gem may well be over.
Ben Pearson may not be as fated as Adnan Januzaj, but he could be a similarly influential figure in United’s future, and van Gaal’s restructuring of the squad.
The incoming manager should find plenty to like in the midfielder, whose tidy passing doesn’t need to be used as a compliment to hide any timidity, as can be the case with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley at times. Tenacious is the word that always seems to follow him around wherever his name is mentioned; in scouting articles, post-match reports and think pieces about the youth talents yet to emerge from Carrington.
He isn’t a footballer who becomes spooked by the close-quarters combat sometimes required to secure the middle of the field, but neither is he some brutish destroyer or reckless ball-winner. Pearson looks likely to become a player in the mould of Owen Hargreaves or Darren Fletcher, whose abilities as a box-to-box all-rounder have always been overlooked due to his brilliance at dismantling Arsenal and other sides unable to cope with his industry.
To some, such players are considered to be work horses, damned to be considered merely as battlers and runners by this faint praise and accompanying, pejorative label. Yet one of the common hallmarks of United’s very best players has always been that touch of hard labour required to marry together skill, imagination and intelligence into a devastatingly complete package.
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were always more than just gifted footballers. They played with a work effort, producing their best work through unfussy and elegance brilliance rather than blasé tricks and unnecessary complications. Their football could never be considered long-winded, with even the most outrageous passes and dribbles produced by the pair coming about through a sense of genius necessity rather than showboating. The same can be said of Eric Cantona. Regardless of how sublime his goals and swagger on the field may have been, there was a kind of ruthlessness running through him that turned his rarefied excellence into such an irresistible force to be reckoned with.
That sort of driving mentality has been missing from United’s midfield perhaps even more so than the kind of player with the attributes to add some dynamism to the mix alongside passers such as Carrick or creators like Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. Phil Jones arguably brought it during is midfield cameos, even if he didn’t have the skill and invention to be more than an enforcer.
An appetite for a battle isn’t what defines Pearson, but it does perhaps help to differentiate him against the current crowd in United’s first team, especially as van Gaal takes stock of his resources after the World Cup. Having been the man to hand Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Thomas Muller their debuts while at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he has one of the best eyes for young talent around, and would happily offer chances to those with the technique and attitude he requires. Pearson isn’t the biggest 19-year-old around, especially for a box-to-box midfielder, but that’s unlikely to hold him back under a manager who seeks out those with the necessary fundamentals of brains and good feet over brawn to fit in his fluid, attacking systems.
As last year’s recipient of the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award, he is clearly fell thought of at Old Trafford. Should Strootman or a similar sort of box-to-box all-rounder arrive in the summer, Pearson could be a ready-made apprentice to study and develop behind such a player, ensuring that the club’s midfield never loses its bite again.