November 4, 2005

Argy Bargy: Man Utd.’s Midfield Mess

Watching Manchester United stumble through its competitive fronts this season, one is forced to wonder if the Red Devils will ever be able to reclaim the dominance that made them the most popular club in the world during the 1990s. Though Chelsea’s domestic supremacy is unparalleled, Man U is still one of the strongest squads top to bottom in Europe. Yet, general consensus holds that they’ve consistently underperformed over the past two seasons.

This perception is inaccurate. The decline of Manchester United hasn’t been due to underperformance so much as over-reliance on a poorly assembled midfield and an outdated dependence on Roy Keane. Sad to say, the squad’s aging captain is only a shadow of his former self.

When the Red Devils were running England ragged in the late ’90s, Keane was the best central midfielder in the country and consistently stood among the world’s elite at his position. It was not always acknowledged at the time that what made him so effective was the partnership he formed with Paul Scholes in the center of the park. Keane was free to control the direction that United played in, while Scholes was often setting up the end product or finishing it himself. Each man’s style fit perfectly with the other’s.

Scholes was subtly brilliant. Possessing some of the best technique in recent history, his passing and goal scoring were matchless at his position in England. He was not always in the game, but was there when he needed to be, and never failed when called upon. At the same time, Keane had an ability to control the action that his teammate did not possess. The Irishman could change the face of the game like none other. That ability to turn the flow in United’s favor played directly into Scholes’s penchant for individual brilliance. In the team’s heyday, Keane completely controlled the game, leaving Scholes free to set up the strikers.

Things have changed. Scholes has lost form, and Keane has declined as a result. The Ginger Prince’s quiet but effective style does not mesh well with that of Keane’s heir apparent, Darren Fletcher. Scholes is constantly searching for the man behind him to take control of the game. Though Sir Alex Ferguson and I both rate Fletcher highly, that is simply not what he does. Fletcher prefers to cover his bases with effectiveness, letting his co-midfielder orchestrate the manner in which United plays. Simply put, both players are looking for the other to anchor the unit.

In effective midfield partnerships, both players’ strengths play into each other. Unfortunately for Manchester United, the best example of that type of partnership currently out there wears Chelsea blue. Frank Lampard steps forward and dictates Chelsea’s play, while Claude Makelele sits in behind him, covering for his errors and caring for the Blues defensively. It’s clearly not just a matter of their individual talents. When Lampard pulls on the England shirt, he has to become a different type of player with the useless David Beckham behind him, and his performances are sometimes affected.

Of course, it’s easy to say that the type of player being called for would improve any teams midfield exponentially, regardless of who played in front of them, and as such would require a serious financial commitment in exchange for their services. Patrick Vieira would fit the bill; of course, he would make any midfield on the planet better, and at cost. But there are players within the Devils’ now-diminished price range that would fit the bill perfectly. Players like Manchester City’s Joey Barton and Newcastle United’s recent acquisition Scott Parkers are both in the £5-£7 million price range, and both offer precisely what United needs: a player who wants control of the game.

Any team would suffer after the loss of a player as inspirational as Keane. At the same time, he will leave the pitch at one point or another in the long run. It may well be time to get it over with. Yet rather than get on with it and find somebody who can give his squad what it needs, Ferguson has chosen to stick by Fletcher and the completely ineffectual Alan Smith. Sir Alex’s stubbornness has overcome reason. There comes a time when all players’ abilities abandon them. Keane may still have a few more magical nights in him, but it’s time for United to splash the cash on a player that fits into Scholes’ abilities. The partnership that brought so many trophies to Old Trafford is all but dead. For the sake of Man U fans everywhere, it must be replaced sooner rather than later.