When Rant mused last October that Sir Alex Ferguson had been negligent in his efforts to improve Manchester United’s midfield, the article drew a varied and passionate response. Four months on and little has changed, with United investing nothing during the winter transfer window and injuries starting to bite on Ferguson’s midfield options.
Indeed, United will arguably go into tonight’s tie with Marseille at Stade Vélodrome with the weakest midfield at the club for a more than a decade. Ferguson will begin the tie without Ryan Giggs, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia, each of whom is injured. Long-term victim Hargreaves will possibly never play for the club again, while Anderson is set for a period on the sidelines after suffering another knee injury at the weekend.
Fortunately for the Scot, Giggs should be fit for the match at Wigan Athletic next weekend and Valencia is back in light-training ahead of a March return to the first team. Meanwhile, Park, whose form this season has noticeably dipped, is out for a month with a hamstring strain.
Assuming that Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nani all start in a 4-5-1 formation, maybe one and possibly two of Darron Gibson, Bébé and Gabriel Obertan will start against the French champions. It’s a frightening thought.
Alternatively, Ferguson will move Wayne Rooney into a wide left position – a role that he hates – and deploy Dimitar Berbatov as a lone-runner up front, a role that he is ill-suited for. After all, the Bulgarian plays in less than a third of United’s ‘big’ ties, where Ferguson usually opts to pack the midfield.
It instructive that on the last occasion United played Marseille, as European Champions in October 1999, the Reds started with a midfield that included Giggs, Scholes, Roy Keane and David Beckham. An unfair comparison perhaps – that quartet was unmatched in European terms until the recent all-conquering Barcelona model – but an enlightening nonetheless.
More than a decade on, whatever label is attached to Ferguson’s currently midfield policy – call it lack of value, call it Glazernomics – it is one that is likely to fail. Now beholden to the fortunes of age and injury, Ferguson’s midfield lacks any depth in quality.
Indeed, supporters are now reduced to hoping that United’s fringe players come good based not on any evidence but blind faith that Ferguson will get it right eventually. Yet, Gibson, Obertan and Bébé have each performed poorly this season. So much so that only the most optimistic of supporters can hold any long-term faith in the trio. So poor were they against Crawley Town in the FA Cup last weekend – particularly the latter pair – that it is not unfair to suggest none would make it at the Blue Square Premier club – based on the evidence of that match at least.
Even if Ferguson can cobble together a midfield for tonight’s match he will have no options from the bench. Injuries aside, Bébé and Obertan’s recruitment has in turn blocked the path for Tom Cleverley at the club, with the England Under-21 midfielder shunted out to Wigan for the season. Youngster Ryan Tunicliffe is the only other midfielder available to Ferguson for the trip to Southern France.
Yet, the future is just as uncertain as Ferguson’s team selection tonight. The 69-year-old Scot has asked Paul Scholes to remain at the club for another season. Ferguson has previously talked-up Anderson’s role as the Englishman’s successor – a boast for which there is scant tangible evidence to date.
“I am more than hopeful about Paul signing another contract,” said Ferguson yesterday.
“I think he should. His fitness isn’t in question. I think Paul feels he has to play all the games. It is not a bad thing to be that way but at his age, that is impossible. But he can still play a big part for Manchester United, this season and next.”
Meanwhile, Carrick may well join Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic in signing a contract extension. That the club tried to offload the Geordie last summer demonstrates the turnaround in either the former West Ham United player’s fortunes, or more likely Ferguson’s thinking.
These events suggest that any fans hoping for a marquee central midfield signing will be disappointed come the summer. Indeed, all talk of United’s supposed £100 million transfer budget in the wake of Rooney’s contract saga last autumn has died down. Quelle surprise, as the French might say.
Should Scholes sign for a final year at the club along with Giggs then conspiracy theorists will have yet more evidence Ferguson will go come summer 2012, handing off the challenge of rebuilding United’s midfield to another man.
Still, it is the nature of football that little surprises. United lost 1-0 in France 12 years ago, even with the aforementioned world-beating quartet in midfield. If United pulls off a win with Gibson, Bebe and Obertan steering the ship tonight it’ll be an even bigger shock.