In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells mankind (yes, I know) to go out and conquer the world, and ever since (yes, I know), we’ve been gripped by a paranoid, neurotic desire to understand everything. But however hard we try, it’s simply not possible: whether its spontaneous combustion, kicks in snooker, or red trousers, cardigans and fascinators, some things will forever lie beyond human comprehension.
There are some things, though – and then there’s Manchester United’s midfield. After signing Owen Hargreaves in July 2007, a player legendary knee-botherer Richard Steadman described as having the worst knobblies he’d ever seen, Alex Ferguson spent five whole years refusing to recruit reinforcements.
At times – painful, aggravating, despondent times – United’s eleven has interpreted the term “midfield” in the most literal possible sense, that being a lump of grass right in its very centre. Outsiders might say that United supporters are spoiled, insiders that it’s important to maintain standards. When I began my career, we had Norman Whiteside and Bryan Robson, who were irreplaceable – until they were replaced while still at the club by Paul Ince, who was irreplaceable – until he was replaced while still at the club by Roy Keane. Soon after, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt came through, and ten years ago yesterday, United augmented perhaps the finest foursome of all-time with Juan Sebastian Veron, to be later accused of possessing more genius than any team could reasonably accommodate. How far we done fell!
The problem in the first instance was the lack of obvious replacement for Keane. Praised for the ranting and intimidation usually euphemised as on-pitch leadership, this obscures the crucial element brought to the team by him and his direct predecessors: excellence that was shocking in its consistency.
So instead United made do, midfield composition regressing faster than Charlie Gordon. All of a sudden, it could contain up to any three of Fortune, Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Smith and Phil Neville, also evidencing a lack of managerial concentration – at least on things listed in the job description.
And all the while, the Paul Scholes problem grew. Now, before you spontaneously combust in outrage, let me explain the paradox (note: spontaneous combustion in humans is a myth, not something unexplained). Old Scholes is still better than almost everyone, so demands inclusion. And yet old Scholes also struggles to influence the biggest games, and deprives of a spot a player more likely to improve.
Anderson, for example, or Godot as he’s known in the dressing room. United’s equivalent of Arsenal, every coming season is definitely going to be his, until it isn’t. This isn’t actually all his fault. Aside from being inferior to Scholes, which is so of the overwhelming majority of players ever to have existed, he’s also suffered more than most at the hands of the Fergie selection tombola – almost every time he’s had a sustained run of games, he’s done well. But even so, when he and Cleverley were attracting praise at the start of last season – some of it legitimate – the manner in which opposition players sauntered between them didn’t indicate a viable partnership.
And then there are the Glazers, leeching fingers in our pockets at every turn; but even this doesn’t fully explain the situation. Ok, there’s no chance United’ll chuck however many dead presidents it takes to assuage Daniel Levy’s ego and make him look hard in front of Joe Lewis, but missing out on Luka Modric ain’t no thing – there’s something horribly inelegant about snatching a player developed elsewhere as soon as he reaches requisite standard. What’s really odd, though, is the number of players bought who either aren’t midfielders, aren’t that good, or weren’t that necessary.
After Ronaldo left, United signed Antonio Valencia, a decent player but not a star. No doubt that sentence is causing consternation, as he’s popular and seems nicer that your average ftbllr, but it’s true. Had United not bought him, I’m certain red teeth would’ve remained unnashed regardless of what he’d done elsewhere, and he doesn’t compare to the best wingers of the Fergie era. Also that summer, Gabriel Obertan and Mame Biram Diouf turned up.
The following January, United bought Chris Smalling, and Javier Hernandez, Bebe and Anders Lindergaard in the close-season. Smalling is already an exceptional defender, and Hernandez a similarly inspired purchase; fair enough; and our pooled imaginations probably couldn’t muster the wild to guess what Bebe was really about. Then, last summer, they signed Phil Jones, whose situation was similar to that of Smalling – a player wanted by a rival and deemed too talented to miss out on – David De Gea, and Ashley Young.
So United have spent in the region of £22.5m on goalkeepers and roughly £43.4m on wingers – or “wingers” – and decided that both were more important than the blokes most regularly involved in the game. Why?
Well, after the last raft of midfield signings, United ended up with a version of what tactics charmers call a broken team: some players defend and some try to score, but no one knits those two elements together, and there’s no discernible style. To an extent, United were a victim of circumstance: Hargreaves and Anderson, their best midfield combination, were frequently injured. They also had a reliable goalkeeper and three exceptional defenders, so didn’t concede many goals, and Ronaldo, who scored in almost every game. That being the case, Carrick and Scholes in midfield, or whoever in midfield, was pretty much good enough.
Except that it wasn’t, overrun at Anfield in consecutive and unable to muster a kick against Barcelona in 2009, in addition to other minor heres and theres. But generally, this only tended to happen against the better sides, against whom you tend to need better players.
So perhaps because they’re out of reach, instead, Fergie built a squad with attacking variety, complementary players with ability, though not outstanding, absolutely discernible. In addition, he knows that fitness – and form, in most cases – are unreliable, thus not spending the entirety of a limited budget on a single player makes some sort of sense, even if it doesn’t make for the most grooved, orgasmic football.
The policy is, most likely, a product of the 2006/07 season. With a small squad and obvious first eleven, the team effectively picked itself, consistently producing thrilling beauty until February and intermittently until April – but ultimately, it limped over the line in the league, was decimated by injury by the European semi, and exhausted for the Cup final.
Much as I despise its opportunity cost, the consequent squad-building is exactly why United could stay with City last season – a selection of strikers with different abilities, and the same in wide positions. Take Ashley Young, for example; his arrival disappointed every Red I know, and even in that context, they were all still underwhelmed by his contribution. But it’s also the case that in a single crucial week, he first created an injury-time winner at Norwich, then provided another and scored a couple himself to arrange a scarcely believable larceny at Spurs, United’s embarrassing inferiority the precise consequence of a missing midfield.
Of course, the ruse fails when entire seasons come down to individual games against other decent outfits. The European losses to Barcelona could be almost ignored – theirs is possibly the best midfield of all-time, and comprises players contracted to them from a very young age. But the home defeat to Chelsea in 2010 and the collapse in the Bayern Munich games either side of it ought to have been easily avoided.
Which brings us to last season: in the three games that cost the title, the lack of proper midfield was decisive. At Wigan, the division’s form team, United were outrun and overrun for the full ninety minutes. Then, against Everton, though the defence was culpable for the late goals conceded, proper midfield protection would have prevented the opposition getting anywhere near.
And lastly, against City, a squad which suffered from problem the very opposite of United’s: an admittedly handy first eleven, with ropey replacements at the back and few attacking options. In the first derby of the season, United started relatively well, but a lack of midfield class and mobility left them unable to penetrate, despite territorial supremacy and a greater share of possession. A few months later, United spent the first ten minutes of the Cup game scarcely able to finagle a touch of the ball, before scoring on the break and benefitting from a red card immediately afterwards – and even then, they almost contrived to lose the advantage. Finally, and most glaringly of all, comes the return league fixture; the team Fergie felt compelled to select couldn’t have announced City’s midfield superiority any more submissively had it taken to the field in red, white and black gimp suits.
But looking forward to 2012/13, things might be changing. A midfielder has now been signed, and though Nick Powell probably won’t play much part, it remains a cause for celebration. Shinji Kagawa has arrived too, introduced yesterday as a support striking false ten trequartista. I say introduced because there’s always the possibility he’ll be deployed everywhere but there, but let’s just assume for a second.
That leaves Carrick and Cleverley as the two most likely to accompany him, the former in front of the back four in a role similar to that played by Busquets, and the other a prompting touch player, similar to Xavi. Obviously it’s the roles rather than the abilities that correlate, but the technique, vision and composure of all three might – might – supply the control that’s been so severely lacking. And, though heritage and sensibility tell us that it’s at least one hard bastard short, for the first time in a long time, I think I might just understand.