Watching Manchester United’s midfield completely swamped by Sunderland on Saturday one couldn’t help but think of the long season ahead. Patently past it’s best and with no effort made to improve the quality this summer, Sir Alex Ferguson stands accused of being negligent in his strategy to improve United’s midfield.
This observation is true whatever restrictions the Old Trafford money men have put in place recently. Certainly, Ferguson is either not willing or not allowed to spend heavily, with the club laying out a net £10 million this summer. So overused has it become that the ‘V-word’ cannot be mentioned without it becoming yet another cliché of the Glazer regime.
Not that the resolution to United’s problems necessarily lies in spending vast sums but Ferguson’s midfield – comprising mostly of players years past their peak, perennially injured, out-of-form or simply not good enough – now cannot compete at the highest level unless the Scot places faith in weight of numbers.
Even then it is almost impossible to make an argument that any United midfielder falls into the – for want of a less hackneyed phrase – ‘world class’ bracket.
Little has changed since the end of the window of course. United began the season with question marks hanging over each member of the midfield other than Nani. Even then fans were right to ask whether the Portuguese winger could replicate his form over the second part of last season in the coming year.
Elsewhere Ferguson possesses plenty of options but little stardust.
Even Paul Scholes, who has been fabulous against mediocre opposition this season, found it impossible to impose himself on the game against Sunderland. It is little wonder, with the 35-year-old’s legs failing him when United’s opponents press fast and hard as the Black Cats did on Saturday.
Scholes’ erstwhile creative successor, Michael Carrick, still appears slumped in the stupor that he has inhabited for more than a year now. The former Spurs player’s ability to screen United’s defence and rotate play at speed was essential to the club winning three Premier League trophies in a row from 2007-9.
Few regard the Geordie in that bracket now; perhaps even the manager, who almost certainly sanctioned a move away from Old Trafford in the summer had any suitable bids been lodged.
Anderson too has much to prove now he is recovered from serious injury. The Brazilian was unlucky to find himself occupying a loose left-sided position against Sunderland after his role at the head of United’s midfield quintet in Valencia last week. But he was again wasteful in possession on Wearside, gifting the ball away one third of the time. Worst still, only one incomplete pass was what might be deemed an attempt to create a goalscoring opportunity.
The Brazilian promises much but has so rarely delivered in his three season’s at Old Trafford to make supporters’ hopes that the 22-year-old will ride to United’s rescue seem fanciful at best.
Even Darren Fletcher is suffering this season, with the Scot’s performance well below the level United fans have come to expect over the past two years. It says much for the improvement in the Dalkeith-born player that fans are disappointed rather than merely resigned to expectation when the Scot fails to lift United from its midfield slumber.
It leaves Ferguson with the rest, which offers little hope of a short term fix, except to those of a perennial optimistic bent. Giggs, a true United legend, will pass 37 this season and can no longer operate frequently on the left wing. Darron Gibson continues to shoot at every opportunity unless a safe five yard pass offers itself instead, although the Irishman frequently traps the ball just as far in any case.
On the left of the Derry Dynamo, Park Ji-Sung can be seen running up any blind alley offered. So poor are the South Korean’s performances since the World Cup that even the clichéd energy seems to have drained from the lifeless corpse that is the 29-year-old’s form. Workrate is his raison d’etre.
Gabriel Obertan’s chances of a first team match in the coming months are minimal, while Owen Hargreaves could make his return in this month’s Carling Cup third round tie with Wolverhampton Wanders. If his leg remains attached at the knee, Ferguson will surely be pleased.
Meanwhile, in the midst the barrage of incompetency United served up on Saturday, £8 million Rafael van der Vaart continues to star for Tottenham Hotspur, £12.4 million Mesut Özil takes La Liga by storm and £12.4 million Wesley Sneijder continues to do what the Dutchman has done for the past year. It’s that V-word again.
Despite the gloom that comes with more dropped points, Bébé made his Premier League début at the Stadium of Light, coming on for Anderson with 10 minutes to go. It’s about as much as Zoran Tošić achieved in two years with the club, so therein lies an improvement at least.
The £7.4 million winger, bought sight-unseen by Ferguson this summer, still has some way to go before the exorbitant fee is recouped by the club. Never has United needed the homeless more than today.