Where Can United Improve? Part 2 (Midfield)

When it comes to the summer transfer window, anyone that has played Football Manager for any period of time will usually consider themselves an expert. It’s usually a lot harder to predict in the real world though, especially with the quality of transfer journalism as terrible as it is. Misleading rumours and quotes taken drastically out of context mean that until a player is pictured holding up a replica of his new shirt, it’s virtually impossible to know which player is going where. One thing that is fairly close to being certain however is that United are expected to make a number of signings this summer and as mere spectators, we can only speculate who will be coming in and who will be on their way out over the next few months.

Much like in the ‘Defence’ section of this feature, the suggestions and predictions made in this article are based mainly on the assumption that United will continue to operate with the conventional 4-3-3 formation that Louis Van Gaal has adopted recently. It’s the system he adopted at Ajax, Barcelona and for a short while at Bayern Munich. It was also his preferred formation when in charge of the Dutch national team before a serious knee injury to powerful midfielder Kevin Strootman forced Van Gaal to adopt a more defensive 3-5-2 setup.

The way United have lined up across the middle with this formation suggests that, for the time being, Louis Van Gaal has prioritised possession over flair. With Michael Carrick operating in the holding role United have a reliable defensive minded player who not only keeps possession better than most others in the league, but also wins it back frequently for his team and can start quick, accurate counter attacks when the opportunity arises. It’s fair to say then that Carrick’s place in the team is fairly secure. Worryingly though, by the time next season starts he will be 34 years old and although his tactical and relaxed style of play suggests he can continue to play right through his late 30s, his history of muscle injuries may prevent him from doing so. So despite Carrick being a key performer, it may be necessary to consider a younger sitting midfielder with the qualities to take over from the intelligent Englishman. The most suitable solution is one that United have already attempted this season. Daley Blind has played in a number of defensive roles during his relatively short professional career. Being a holding midfielder, however, seems to be the role he most excels in. He reads the game in a similar way to Carrick and compensates for his clear lack of pace in the same way that Carrick does. By reading the game superbly and making sure that he is always in a position that prevents runners from getting beyond him. His presence would be missed at left back where his partnership with Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young has been excellent recently, but as i’ll explain in a second, that partnership will have to be broken up anyway in order to accommodate a more fluid passing ¬†style down the left hand side of the pitch. At least in my admittedly inexperienced opinion.

Sir Alex Ferguson adopted a 4-3-3 formation in the 2009/2010 season to utilise the athleticism of Darren Fletcher and Ji Sung Park. Park and Fletcher played the box to box roles either side of a stable Michael Carrick. Van Gaal seemed to have a similar idea last summer when he tried to bring in Kevin Strootman who excels in this role. The characteristics needed of a player in this attacking midfield role are stamina (and plenty of it), passing ability and tackling ability. It’s a lot to expect from one player but when executed properly it it a difficult puzzle to solve. Currently United have operated with Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini in these roles. Fellaini on the left and Herrera on the right. Ander Herrera, when fit and healthy, is perfect for this role and is one of the few players in the current United setup who has justified his continued selection in the starting 11. His passing ability is beyond question, keeping the ball in even the most testing of circumstances. He is also adept at timing tackles perfectly in order to stop counter attacks and he has the tactical knowledge and positioning to ensure that his lack of pace is very rarely a hinderance to his team. Going forward, he has shown, against a range of defensive setups, that he has the vision to play a killer pass into the attacking line which is vital when playing this formation. Add to this list of qualities the fact that he has as much energy in the 90th minute than he does in the first and it’s fair to say that he has proven to be a shrewd buy from Ed Woodward. Fellaini on the other hand is a lot harder to decipher. It would do the giant Belgian a disservice to claim that he doesn’t possess the talent to be in the United team. He was a key part of some of United’s best attacking football over the last few months and whether fans appreciate his bullish route one qualities or not, the fact of the matter is that they do work and it is a tactic that most top European teams do not have the players to deploy. In that regard I believe Fellaini is worthy of his place in the United squad. Unfortunately however, I would not play Fellaini in the starting 11 week in week out. Although Van Gaal has found a way to fully use the qualities he has, the truth is that his ability to play the ball on the floor is simply not up to scratch and it jars with the way that United need to play football in order to find a way through stubborn defensive teams.

The most suitable player that United have been linked with over the last few weeks is Borussia Dortmund midfielder Ilkay Gundogan. The German midfielder is slowly finding the form that saw him linked with a host of top European teams before an injury saw him miss large parts of last season. His passing ability is no doubt world class and his range is outstanding. He has the ability to find a teammate in space at pretty much any distance and that is a weapon that United have missed since Paul Scholes retired. Add to this his defensive work rate which comes from playing a number of games at holding midfield for Dortmund and United could have a player capable of making that box to box role his own. The only issue is his stamina which may have waned after a long period on the sidelines. The fact that Gundogan would probably be available for a relatively low transfer fee, however, means that it would be a gamble worth taking. Especially as the pay off would be an in form Ilkay Gundogan who hasn’t even reached the peak years of his career yet.

Another player that would be ideal for this role is Juventus hard man Arturo Vidal. By now a name that many United fans are tired of hearing. Although Vidal seems to be linked with United every few weeks, it is for good reason. He is essentially the perfect Louis Van Gaal player. He is aggressive without the ball, composed with the ball and he doesn’t allow himself to be bullied in the middle of the park. Vidal would represent a huge statement of intent if Van Gaal could pull the deal off. At the moment however it seems like an unlikely move but a player of his ilk is certainly what United should be looking for.

In summary, United could very well find themselves reaching the levels of success they once achieved year in year out if they make the appropriate additions this transfer window. A starting midfield three of Gundogan, Carrick and Herrera offer skill, power and defensive stability. And with Blind and Fellaini ready to step in when needed, United could have the flexibility to deal with most obstacles. Someone like Vidal would also slot straight into the first 11 if he was available for purchase, most likely at the expense of the left sided central midfielder. It would also give United a stable platform on which to launch attacks.