It is fair to say that the protracted acquisition of Owen Hargreaves at great expense from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2007 has been an unmitigated disaster. A disaster that just got worst with the news that the Canadian-English international will not now play again for United until January 2010. With the latest setback to Hargreaves’ United career questions must now be raised about whether he will ever play for the club again. It poses a serious dilemma for Sir Alex Ferguson, who needs to rebuild confidence in a midfield that was so badly exposed by Barcelona in the Champions League final. Should Sir Alex cut and run by offloading Hargreaves when he’s finally fit and bringing in new blood, or stick it out and hope that when the player finally returns he will be as good as ever?
With the departure of Roy Keane, United have lacked a true tough-tackling defensive midfielder. This much is true even with the rise in performance this season of Michael Carrick, whose positional sense and effective passing has been instrumental to United’s success. But for the sake of balance Ferguson pursued Hargreaves for two summers, until Munich finally gave in and United’s board handed over the best part of £20 million. Despite some criticism that Hargreaves plays in the same position as Carrick, the move was broadly right. Hargreaves adds something different to United’s squad. Indeed, if the midfielder had been fit, his energy and ability to break up play may have made some difference in the Champions League final.
Now Ferguson must decide whether, for the same reasons of squad balance, he needs to spend big this summer on a tough-tackling defensive midfielder to compliment the abilities of Darren Fletcher, Anderson and the aforementioned Carrick. But this task wont be easy or cheap. Top-class defensive midfielders can be counted on the fingers of one hand and the price to United would surely be in excess of £20 million – the fee that Real Madrid paid for Portsmouth’s former Chelsea and Arsenal reserve Lassana Diarra.
Of course the same criticisms apply to any new acquisition as they did to that of Hargreaves in the first place. Fletcher, Anderson and Carrick have all occupied deep lying midfield slots in the past season. Is there value to the squad in having yet another player in that position? This argument is even more pointed when we think about the experience against Barcelona in Rome, where Barcelona’s ability to keep the ball was so fundamentally destructive to United’s hopes. While Carrick and Paul Scholes, when he plays, rarely give away the ball, the same cannot be said of Fletcher, Anderson and to some extent Giggs. Perhaps Ferguson would be better spending £20-£30 million on a creative midfielder who might stand-up to the class of Andreas Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez, who so embarrassed United in the Champions League final?