Manchester United’s failure to land a central midfielder this summer is with scepticism in many quarters, with the club’s inability to meet the wage demands of Wesley Sneijder and Samir Nasri pointing many critics towards a charge of Glazernomics. Yet, while United’s poor record the road last season was almost entirely down to a paucity of options in central midfield, manager Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen not to acquire new talent for the role this summer.
Far from meeting the challenge of Barcelona’s dominance in Europe, and Manchester City’s lavish spending domestically, some pundits believe that United may well have run simply to stand still this summer. Indeed, while Ashley Young offers a new flexible attacking option, David de Gea and Phil Jones are new-for-old replacements in Ferguson’s squad. The question of whether United is ‘net better’ from this summer’s transfer activity is yet to be answered.
Yet the 69-year-old Scot believes – critics might add he has little choice – that emerging youngsters can fill the void left by Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves this summer. Tom Cleverley’s positive 45 minute display against City in the Community Shield offers reason for supporter optimism. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Frenchman Paul Pogba is singled out by Ferguson as a real hope not only for the future but the coming season as well.
“We’re quite positive about him,” Ferguson said.
“If we hold Paul Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract is finished. We have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”
That athletic frame has drawn comparisons with Patric Vieira, a lazy analogy born seemingly of players’ similar French-African roots and height. Indeed, those who have watched Pogba’s progress in United’s FA Youth Cup winning side last season witnessed a player of significant finesse, quick feet and attacking prowess. The comparison with former Arsenal midfielder Vieira is one that Ferguson rightly rejects.
“He could be a surprise for us. I took him to the charity game in Monaco and he played 25 minutes in the second half against Marseille’s first team and he did very well. He got involved right away and I said to myself, he’s not bad,” added Ferguson.
“He’s a big physical boy. He has a great physique, 6ft 2in, athletic. The new Patrick Vieira? That’s just because of his height and build. Patrick was a great player but this boy is only 18. Look at Patrick when he was 18, he was playing centre half for Cannes. He only emerged as a midfield player at AC Milan.
“But I believe Pogba has the equipment to be successful. Seeing youngsters like him come through helps me, it helps us all. It’s still one of my biggest thrills to see a youngster coming up through the ranks. The kids are the foundation of the club. I think the foundations are looking good at the moment. This helps to drive me.”
Yet there is much work to be done if Ferguson is to fast-track Pogba into the first team picture. Despite his potential Pogba would surely struggle in the Premier League’s more physical encounters. Meanwhile, Ferguson believes that the former Le Harve midfielder must develop a greater range of passing if he is to make it to the very top.
“You don’t want to be putting the lad under pressure yet, but he’s got all the equipment all right,” added the United boss.
“He’s strong and athletic and he’s almost ready to be considered. We are just trying to work on his distribution. He has been playing a short passing game and we think he could do with a bit more range. We will be giving him opportunities this season because if you don’t use good players you end up losing them. We can’t hold him back, and wouldn’t want to do anyway.”
Along with United’s other great midfield talent in the FA Youth Cup winning side, Ravel Morrison, Pogba can expect games in the Carling and FA Cups in the coming season. Ferguson is almost certain to pick fringe sides in the early rounds of both competitions, with United entering the Carling Cup at the third round stage in September.
Morrison, meanwhile, is unlikely to be fast-tracked into the first team picture until the youngster’s many off-the-field distractions have cleared. The club’s willingness to protect the 18-year-old Wythenshawe-born player, despite multiple court appearances over the past 18 months, says much for the talent on offer; arguably the most fluid English central midfielder with the ball at his feet since Paul Gascoigne.
In Morrison, Pogba, Cleverley and perhaps Anderson – if the €30 million Brazilian can ever find some consistency – Ferguson has built with the future very much in mind. The players represent an exciting quartet of midfield talent very much in the United tradition.
Yet, for all that future promise the feeling that United has sacrificed short-term progress at the Glazer’s financial altar is inescapable. Despite Barcelona’s utter destruction of the Reds’ midfield at Wembley in May the Catalan club has acquired in Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez two talents of the highest order. That – Nani aside – no United midfielder would make Barca’s squad, let alone first team, is telling.