United’s new midfield maestro

During a tumultuous summer for Manchester United, where Sir Alex Ferguson once again seamlessly masterminded the transformation of a team of experienced, seasoned campaigners, into a fresh, vibrant young team – it was widely thought he had missed one key ingredient.

The need to replace a player of the calibre of the Paul Scholes was apparent. A number of worthy candidates were proposed, the likes of Luka Modric, Samir Nasri and in particular, Wesley Sneijder – However, it would turn out no replacement would come at all.

Modric became the subject of heavy interest from Chelsea; whose £40 million transfer deadline day bid for the playmaker was not enough to prise him from Tottenham. Nasri, after snubbing interest from United, chose a whopping pay rise to join Manchester City in a £23 million deal, and Sneijder, after a great deal of speculation in the press, would remain with the Nerazzurri for another season.

Ferguson however, remained undeterred. Instead, he elected to stand by his faith in his squad, and attempt to find an answer within the club, dismissing any speculation along the way.

“Absolute nonsense,” Ferguson said of the speculation, surrounding Sneijder in particular at the time. “I have never discussed him. There is nothing new.”

Ferguson paid tribute to Scholes amid the speculation, adding: “I don’t think we will find another Paul Scholes. But hopefully we can replace him. Maybe we will find a different type of player.

“It (centre midfield) is an area we have to find a solution for.”

So what is the solution – does it exist within the realms of Old Trafford? Much has been made of the burgeoning talents of the emerging central midfielder, Tom Cleverley. Ferguson said of the player: “Physically he is not the strongest but he is wiry and has a great idea of the game.”

Certainly, Cleverley has made a big impression in his starting appearances for United’s first team. He was at the heart of United’s flying start to the 2011/2012 campaign, coming on in the Community Shield and proving instrumental to United’s victorious comeback against rivals Manchester City, as well as providing an assist for Nani’s equalising goal.

Cleverley went on to provide another assist in the Red Devils’ 3-0 victory over Tottenham, and was outstanding once again in the 8-2 demolition job of Arsenal. However, ligament damage sustained during United’s 5-0 away win at the Reebok stunted his progress, and United have struggled for creativity since, not scoring over three goals in one game since that fixture, and dropping points in the process.

Cleverley is an obvious candidate as a long-term replacement for Scholes, but have United found another midfield ace in the form of their talisman, Wayne Rooney?

On Wednesday night, Rooney, due to United’s current lack of options in midfield, was deployed in a central midfield role, and, to the surprise of many, shone in a man-of-the-match display in a 2-0 Champions League win over Romanian outfit Otelul Galati.  

Ferguson said: “He was our best player. He showed great awareness of that role.

“It was an option for us and a good option because he has all the qualities you need to be a central midfield player.

“The first thing you have to say about him is that he receives the ball very well. He is aided by the fact he plays in a forward role, when receiving the ball is more of an issue, but that was an advantage for him.”

However, Ferguson was quick to dispel any thoughts of Rooney occupying the role permanently: “When you’ve got a player who I think has scored 10 goals so far, you want him to be in positions where he will get even more goals and I think that position is in his normal place”

“It’s conditional in the sense of what midfield players I have available,” Ferguson added. “We decided why not play Wayne there because he’s got the appetite for it; he’s got the energy levels for it.

“I’m not putting any marker down for that position really because it depends what is available elsewhere.”

And wisely so. Perhaps unintentionally, United have stumbled upon a terrific option to retain Rooney in a midfield role, while the likes of Cleverley, Ashley Young, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are recovering from injury and players such as Anderson are struggling for fluency in the middle of the park.

Anderson, unlike Rooney, came up desperately short on Wednesday night. With less than 55% of his forward passes finding a United player, he lacked the attacking impetus needed, more so than ever now with Scholes gone and a number of central midfielders out of action.

This is certainly not a case for Rooney slotting into centre midfield permanently, as his superior capabilities lie in an attacker’s role – as his 9 league goals in as many games suggest.

However, he has definitely made a case for his inclusion in midfield on a short-term basis, or as a future option should this situation arise again in United’s midfield, or even when he is older and no longer possesses that burst of pace needed at the top-level, as Ryan Giggs has done so admirably for years now.

His superb range of passing and unerring vision, an ever-present feature of his game, was further highlighted on Wednesday, with a stupendous ball into the path of Dimitar Berbatov leading to United’s first goal.

Over the game, Rooney’s long passing success read 78%, with his passing over a shorter distance read a highly impressive 91%, a statistic that would compete with the likes of Barcelona’s world-renowned midfield duo, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Rooney certainly believes he can play there, as long as it satisfies his manager. Stating after the game: “I feel I’m a good enough footballer to play anywhere on the park. That’s not being big-headed. I feel I am capable of doing that. If the manager wants me to play there, I have no problem in doing that.”

His performance certainly caught the eye of a number of figures in the game, with the Daily Telegraph’s football correspondent Henry Winter summarising: “Half-close the eyes and it could have been Scholes spraying those crossfield passes. It was not simply the accuracy of Rooney’s delivery that impressed. It was the vision. Rooney clearly carries pictures in his head, almost a running movie of where his team-mates are so he can find them first-time.”

Alex Smith

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