Paul Scholes was a bit older and slower, Michael Carrick struggled to find the form he enjoyed before the disastrous 2009 Champions League performance, Owen Hargreaves was permanently injured, attitude and injuries held Anderson back from fulfilling his potential to the maximum and Darren Fletcher still had plenty in the engine but his virus only interrupted what was an ineffective season for the Scot.
We never really replaced Roy Keane, maybe because he is irreplaceable, but this season we have struggled in the centre of the park more than ever, with the gap left by the departure of true world class talent more obvious than ever. Week, after week, after week, particularly on the road, the midfield has been alarmingly below the standards set by our defenders and attackers. Even when shoving five across the middle, average teams have overrun our central midfield. Whilst the gulf is class was obviously far more apparent when confronted with the best midfield in the world in the Champions League final, it shouldn’t be ignored that we’ve struggled to get to grips with the likes of Blackpool, Bolton and Birmingham this season.
Jordan Henderson, a Manchester United fan who has been linked to the club for some time, has now become a target for Liverpool. Sunderland rejected their bid this morning, apparently £13m, and I desperately hope we don’t try and beat it.
Another 20-year-old United fan who we’ve been linked to is Jack Rodwell. Of the two deals, this appears to be the more likely, but again, I hope it doesn’t happen. We’d be looking at least £20m for this lad.
After our midfield has been on a steady decline for a few seasons, we can’t afford the time, as much as the money, to see whether these players can make it. Scholes has gone, Giggs is a year older, Hargreaves is finally out of the picture once and for all, so we need someone special, and we need them now. Maybe Henderson and Rodwell will be special players in a few years time but that’s no use to us.
Luka Modric has to be our priority and is probably the most realistic of the lot, with Wesley Sneijder also mentioned fairly regularly. For all Harry Redknapp’s assertions to the contrary, Spurs will sell Modric if the price is right. After spending all season claiming he was going to stay, he revealed this week that he wanted Champions League football and would leave if there was a good deal for him and the club. United will have to stump up the cash, which should be around the £30m mark. He still has five years remaining on the contract he signed last summer, so there’s no chance of us getting him on the cheap. We will probably have to rely on him stamping his feet a little too because that Daniel Levy can be a stubborn git, particularly where United are concerned.
I’m being spoilt and unrealistic but I’d like Bastian Schweinsteiger to come with him. He also has five years remaining on his contract, despite his brother repeatedly telling him to join us, so wouldn’t be cheap either. If Fletch and Carrick have it in them to up their game and play like they did a couple of years ago, then Schweinsteiger wouldn’t be a desperate need, like Modric is. He would be a luxury. Remember when we used to be able to afford them? A midfield of Scholes and Keane at their peak and splashing the cash on Juan Sebastian Verson? Those were the days. Our situation is different in the Glazer reign though, so I’m probably going to have to get over Bastian.
When it comes to young players with the potential to be great, we should look no further than our own youth. Tom Cleverley will be welcomed back in to the squad for the pre-season and will be on the fringe of the team next season. Why spend £15m-£20m on Henderson or Rodwell when we have our own players waiting to step up?
Oliver Holt met Tom Cleverley last summer and couldn’t speak highly enough of him. “There is something about him that tells you he has been at United since he was 11. He is assured, mature, single-minded and happy to make whatever sacrifices he needs to.” This is the player we should be offering our opportunities to, not Sunderland and Everton’s youth products. Further down the line, you hope that Paul Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe will be given their chance too, given how brightly they have shone for our youth teams.
In years gone by we had time to wait and see youth develop, even if it meant the team wasn’t as good as it could have been in the present. We don’t have £20m to spend on a 20-year-old who might be world class in five years time and we can’t afford to be any weaker than necessary with our rivals splashing the cash. We need to go for the kill, bring in that special player now, and hope that players like Cleverley do enough with the limited chances they get to improve their game and keep their place in the squad. That is how we’ve always been successful and after keeping the purse strings pulled tight in recent seasons, it’s time for the manager to spend what is required to land us that world class midfielder who will take us to the next level.