Most pundits will agree that, if there is one area on the pitch in which Manchester United most need to reinforce, it is in the middle of the park. Even apart from the enforced replacement of Paul Scholes which looks increasingly necessary with every passing week, the quality required to be a truly great team just isn’t on offer.
Some will argue that Scholes and Giggs get overrun by physical, athletic footballers like Michael Essien. Others will suggest that Michael Carrick’s form has fallen of a cliff since Xavi and Iniesta gave him the run-around, and most point out that Darron Gibson just isn’t up to the standard. This leaves Anderson, who is yet to convince, and Owen Hargreaves.
Would we be having this discussion about Manchester United’s midfield needs if Owen Hargreaves had returned to full fitness for any length of time in the past three seasons?
Fleeting appearances in 2010 against Sunderland and Wolves suggested that the now 30 year old would be back in the fold sooner rather than later, but have instead served only to deepen the sense that, in Hargreaves, Manchester United have exactly the player they need, but without the ability to use him.
With money reputedly tight at Old Trafford in spite of the world record £80m sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, has Sir Alex Ferguson been able to justify recruiting another top-class holding midfielder whilst Hargreaves was still on the payroll?
Or has Sir Alex admitted to himself that he is simply not great at identifying and exploiting midfield talent? Admittedly, Roy Keane was an inspired buy, but with him already tearing up the league at Nottingham Forest and then sticking around for twelve years, two doubles, a treble and four other Premiership titles, it was also a no-brainer.
Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Darren Fletcher were all presented on a plate, products of a fertile youth system at Manchester United.
It’s the catalogue of Manchester United midfield flops that suggest that, for all of Owen Hargreaves’ injury troubles, it’s down to Sir Alex’s inability to identify midfield talent that United find themselves in the hole that they do.
Whether Ferguson has gone after tried and tested internationals like Juan Veron and Jose Kleberson, or lesser known young players like Liam Miller and Eric Djemba-Djemba, the midfielders that he has brought to the club have almost universally flopped. United have had to turn, time and again, to the old guard which Ferguson was provided with by his outstanding youth system.
Now, with Giggs and Scholes both possibly retiring this summer, and certainly the next, he will no longer be able to rely on the players who have, for the best part of 20 years, held his midfield together. With a new goalkeeper also a confirmed requirement, this summer could represent the biggest challenge in the market that Sir Alex has ever faced.
At least, it would, but for the get-out-of-jail-free card that United possess in the form of U18 duo Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba, who both look likely to emerge just in time to satisfy the exact demands presented by the Giggs and Scholes retirements.
Pogba, a hugely physical and surprisingly technical midfielder with a keen eye for goal, compliments the outrageously talented Ravel Morrison perfectly, allowing him freedom to spray passes, beat men and also contribute his fair share of goals.
With Ryan Tunnicliffe also emerging and Tom Cleverley impressing for the second season running on loan, is the real reason that we haven’t seen any midfield reinforcement that Ferguson doesn’t want to stifle the growth of the richest crop of United youngsters for fifteen years?
After all, if there’s one thing that Ferguson can’t do, it’s recruit central midfielders, but if there is one thing that he can, it’s bring a generation of youngsters into the first team and mould them into the dominant force of the decade.
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