Paul Scholes, the finest English player of his generation, continues to defy his age each week with a masterclass on how to pass a football and manipulate a game. That’s the good news; the bad news is he is 36, no longer able to play every game and realistically may have only one season left. Replacing Paul Scholes is impossible, he is a magician, but Sir Alex Ferguson must make the position of attacking central midfield a priority.
Between the years of 1994-2005, goals were a massive part of Scholes’ game; he worried teams not only with his playmaking abilities but with his real desire to score goals and was a huge threat. In the season of 2002-2003, he scored a remarkable 20 goals in just over 50 appearances. Since then, the goals have understandably begun to dry up.
Anderson has never really seen his Old Trafford career take off, he has had his fair share of injuries, but a return of 1 goal in 106 appearances says more than I ever could; he certainly possesses the ability but has yet to consistently show it. Michael Carrick, who is a shadow of the player of two seasons ago, has registered just 17 goals in 201 appearances for United. A player of such fabulous passing ability but increasingly defensively minded, seems to have suffered a severe lack of confidence.
Darren Fletcher has improved his record as a goal scorer in recent years but only has a mere 21 goals in 273 appearances. At times this season he has been pushed further forward; the problem is he is never going to be a playmaker in the mould of Xavi or Iniesta, he’s a grafter and that said, he is one of the best. Then there’s Darren Gibson, who can certainly strike a ball, but at the age of 23 he has so far struggled to establish himself. Owen Hargreaves, if he ever returns to fitness, is effectively a defensive midfielder. Tom Cleverley, on loan at Wigan, may well turn out to be the answer, he has a decent goal scoring record in the lower leagues but whether he can transfer this to the Premier League is debatable.
Every top team in the Premier League has a player who provides consistent assists and a real goal threat from central midfield. Chelsea boast Frank Lampard, who hit an incredible 22 league goals last season and carries a goals-to-game ratio of 1 goal every 3 games for Chelsea spanning over 10 years. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard regularly scores over the 20 mark and has 7 goals already to his name in just 12 games; he carries an equally impressive ratio of a goal every just under 4 games. Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal’s conductor, registered 19 goals last season, including 15 in the league. Tottenham’s Rafael Van der Vaart has also started the season in fine goal scoring form. Fabregas along with Van der Vaart, Lampard and Gerrard all pose a real threat from midfield, not just with goals but with their presence of a goal threat, each also provides an impressive assist record.
Manchester United need a playmaker. That said, finding that player is a lot easier said than done. Wesley Sneijder had been identified but was dismissed as paper talk by Sir Alex; however with Inter struggling in Serie A, he may be seeking a new challenge after his success last season. Javi Martinez is also an option; he certainly has an eye for a pass and would provide a goal threat. Luka Modric is also an option, but with Tottenham unlikely to sell, the chances are slim. Bastian Schweinsteiger is a fine player who had a magnificent World Cup in a more withdrawn role, but he has all of the attributes to fill the void further forward and there have been noises made that he is ready to try his hand at the Premier League.
The fact United didn’t take up the option to sign Van Der Vaart in the summer is very much a mystery. He showed promise at Hamburg, had real pedigree at Real Madrid although deemed surplus to requirements by Jose Mourinho, and has proved he can compete in the Premier League.
The present and future for Manchester United is bright but they continue to lack that spark in central midfield. They have good options in defence with Rafael and Fabio likely to fill the full back slots for years to come and Smalling and Evans deputising impressively in central defence. Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ji Sung Park and the improving Gabriel Obertan and Bebe provide good options when the evergreen Ryan Giggs has to call it a day. Up front the returning Wayne Rooney, Federico Macheda and impressive Javier Hernandez provide a youthful attack along with the class of Dimitar Berbatov.
A player to link the team together would be the final piece in the jigsaw. Despite the club’s well documented debt, there is money to spend; such assurances have been made to Wayne Rooney. Let’s not forget, this is Manchester United, one of, if not the biggest club in the world. Sir Alex is perhaps reluctant to spend big in this area after the £28 million move for Juan Sebastian Veron and £17 million move for Anderson in recent years. They possess Fletcher and Carrick who are good disciplined midfielders and being defensive in midfield is imperative when playing away from home against the big teams. But United have found it difficult to unlock defences at Old Trafford against lesser opposition, lacking that final killer ball. In a league which focuses heavily on being physical there has been a real emergence of smaller, slighter, wiser midfield players in recent seasons. There’s something about a Sneijder playing in behind Rooney which really would be a joy to see.
In an age where managers seem to have become obsessed with the art of a well disciplined defensive midfielder, the need for a goal scoring attacking midfielder could not be greater.