11 February 2015. Manchester United beat Burnley with a 3-1 scoreline that flattered to deceive. It was a game in which Louis van Gaal deployed his captain, Wayne Rooney in a midfield holding role. Rooney featured in 14 games in midfield last season, with the Reds’ best striker largely wasted in the centre of the pitch.
Meanwhile, United’s midfield continued to rely heavily on Michael Carrick, a player only truly appreciated in the red of Manchester. Even approaching his mid-30s Carrick offers the ‘balance’ that Van Gaal craves; without the Englishman, United looked out of sorts for large parts of the season.
And yet United splurged over £150 million last summer, leaving aside the crucial purchase of a defensive midfielder, Daley Blind notwithstanding. In keeping with his predecessors Van Gaal chose not to augment Carrick’s presence – a predicament that has lingered since Roy Keane unceremoniously left the club in 2005. In fact, until Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin joined this summer, Owen Hargreaves was the only natural replacement for the Irishman acquired in nearly 10 years.
Last season Van Gaal’s methodology in selecting a midfield pair appeared to revolve around which players would best cope with the opposition. This policy of damage control worked effectively – to a point – due to the grit and determination of Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, in particular. The pair embodied the manager’s determination to reach the Premier League top four regardless of United’s squad deficiencies.
Yet, this approach cannot continue if the title-winning days are to return to Old Trafford.
18 July 2015. United played Club America in Seattle, enjoying a 1-0 victory in the club’s first pre-season game of the 2015/16 campaign. Following the flurry of recent arrivals at Carrington anticipation for United’s return to action was high. While the Reds’ performance was far from perfect in the Pacific Northwest midfield was largely except from criticism. After all, the £40 million investment on Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin leaves Van Gaal with a midfield that can be compared to Europe’s élite; a mix of creativity and experience to be envied.
In Schneiderlin, the Reds have acquired a player who rectifies many deficiencies in midfield. The ex-Southampton man offers proven Premier League experience and excelled as the Saints finished a strong seventh last season. The French international adds much-needed steel to a midfield lacking bite, as was clear in a dominant display against Club America. In Schneiderlin’s first 45 minutes as a Red the Frenchman screened the defence well and swiftly snuffed out America attacks.
It is not just Schneiderlin’s defensive performance that impressed. Van Gaal repeatedly bemoaned United’s lack of height last season when it came to set pieces. If Schneiderlin’s towering header in the fifth minute is anything to go by there will be fewer complaints from the Dutchman this season. And with Schneiderlin’s peak years ahead of him the Frenchman could be a fixture in the United squad for seasons to come.
However strong Schneiderlin’s performance the limelight was stolen by Bastian Schweinsteiger in Seattle. The first German to play for United, Schweinsteiger’s capture may prove to be Ed Woodward’s finest piece of business. Not since Keane have United supporters enjoyed a domineering midfielder who dictates proceedings. In his first 45 minutes in a United shirt Schweinsteiger showed that he can do just that.
Primarily deployed alongside younger players in the second half, the former-Bayern Munich man brought a sense of calmness to the midfield, allowing Andreas Pereira to confidently play his own game. Not only is Schweinsteiger one of the most technically gifted players in Europe, but the World Cup winner also brings a significant amount of leadership to a United dressing room that lacked authority over the past two seasons.
While there are doubts over Schweinsteiger’s age and fitness, with the German international approaching his 31st birthday, there remains much to the midfielder’s game. Technically, the German captain will continue to improve with age, and if anyone can squeeze more from Schweinsteiger is it Van Gaal, the man who first converted the player from a winger to a holding midfield role during his time at the Allianz Arena.
Beyond the new signings the club is blessed with options in central midfield: Herrera, Fellaini, Blind, Carrick and Juan Mata. If Van Gaal, as it seems, deploys his preferred 4-3-3 system, the two new acquisitions will be a part of the midfield three. The intriguing question remains who will become the third player in the centre of the pitch.
After a tremendous first season at the club Herrera might expect to be in place to provide foil to the aptly nicknamed ‘Schmidfield’. The Spaniard brings energy and dynamism to midfield, although Van Gaal’s admiration for Carrick is clear. Indeed, the Dutchman has reassured Carrick of his importance to the team, according to Manchester Evening News, and the Englishman will remain vice-captain.
It is a reasonable position after the pivotal role Carrick played last season and the former Spurs man will almost certainly be part of the starting XI when fit. This potentially leaves Herrera and perhaps Mata with a diminished role. With Herrera proving his worth last season, and his compatriot impressing in pre-season, Van Gaal is left with a selection headache in midfield.
One player who might not provide competition in midfield is Blind, who started the games against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes in the centre of defence. He may continue to be deployed in the role for the rest of the season – Van Gaal suggested as much in his post-match press conference. Not least because of the Dutchman’s preference for a left-footed player in one of the centre back slots.
How Van Gaal solves this midfield puzzle, while keeping his clutch of stars happy, will be one of the most fascinating storylines in the coming season. The former-Ajax coach is ruthless enough to discard players who fail to meet expectations. Former protégés, Victor Valdes and Robin Van Persie offer proof enough this summer.
With United’s midfield resources now overloaded, there are many players with a point to prove. It’s a day supporters have been waiting for since the day Paul Scholes hung up his boots.