It’s a debate that’s seemingly raged since Rome 2009, when United’s midfield was picked apart by Barca’s merciless possession football, a situation sadly repeated at Wembley just over a week ago.
Many have argued that United’s midfield is uninspiring, pedestrian, not creative enough, the worst of the top five.
The retirement of Paul Scholes has thrown United’s central midfield issues into even sharper relief, with many believing that a creative central midfielder is a must, or United will be left behind big spenders Chelsea and Manchester City.
Amongst the United faithful (certainly on Twitter) the two names most mentioned are Dutch World Cup finalist and Inter Milan treble winner Wesley Sneijder and Croatian schemer Luka Modric. Here I will explain why, in my humble opinion, neither is the answer to United’s midfield issues and why a creative midfielder is, in fact, not needed at all.
Sneijd to the left, Sneijd to the right
Wesley Sneijder. World class. The two phrases seem to go hand in hand. When people are asked about attacking midfielders, clever players, schemers, men to unlock defences, they invariably always come back to Sneijder. The little man with the big shot, the feather light touch and the intricate control. However, there are several problems that I have with Sneijder.
The first problem is that, for a creative midfielder, Sneijder’s stats in Serie A last season were far from impressive; only four goals and five assists in his 22 league games.
While he is without a doubt a top-class attacking midfielder, there is another issue that for me is where the main problem lies; how would Sneijder fit into United’s tactics and formation? As a player, Sneijder has been most effective throughout his career playing in systems in which two defensive midfielders (Cambiasso and Zanetti for Inter, Van Bommel and De Jong for Holland) handle defensive duties, enabling Sneijder to merely hold his position in the final third behind a lone striker.
At United, Sir Alex has never utilised a system with two defensive midfielders and, towards the end of last season, often played a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Rooney operating behind Hernandez as a classic number 10, a position in which Sneijder would be most effective. To sign Sneijder would almost inevitably mean breaking up the Rooney-Hernandez partnership and moving Rooney from his best position just off the front man.
The way to solve this, many would argue, would be to play Sneijder in a two-man midfield. I would reply by saying that Sneijder simply cannot play in a two-man central midfield. This was one of the main reasons for his acrimonious exit from Real Madrid; they played him in a two-man central midfield and found themselves over-run in central areas time and time again.
Whilst the signing of Sneijder would definitely excite me, I struggle to see how he could fit in with United’s tactics and formation.
Mod is not the man
So what of Modric? The argument’s are familiar, the cry tried and tested. “We need Modric, he’ll solve our problems” is the phrase most commonly heard. There is little doubt that, despite Gareth Bale scooping the individual honours, Modric was the star of Tottenham’s season and is likened by many to Paul Scholes, seen as the natural replacement to the Ginger Prince.
While Modric’s pass success rate is superb, his rate of goals and assists is anything but. Last season Modric finished 82nd in the assists list for the Premier League with 3 behind players such as Matthew Taylor, Ian Evatt (a central defender), Elliot Grandin, Jason Roberts, Jose Enrique and even Thomas Hitzlsperger, a player who did not play a league game for bottom of the table West Ham until February. In terms of goals scored Modric finished 102nd, behind players such as Liam Ridgewell, Chris Samba, Alex Song and Youssouf Mulumbu. The stats can sometimes be deceiving, but they simply are not that impressive.
While Modric would be an impressive signing, and one which would certainly excite me, the main argument that I would put forward against Modric is that United simply don’t need a creative midfielder.
A Roma Raid
I would argue that, rather than a creative midfielder, what United are missing is a destroyer; a destructive, aggressive central midfielder to add a bit of anger, a bit of bite to our midfield. We haven’t had a fiery central midfielder, a real leader who will get his team-mates fired up and remind them of any errors they may make since Roy Keane left Old Trafford. Someone good in a midfield battle, someone willing to fight for possession, someone willing to stand his ground and someone, quite simply, who is a ball winner.
We lack both a real leader and a true defensive midfielder (a role into which Michael Carrick was forced by Owen Hargreaves persistent injuries), and both can be found in one man; Roma vice-captain Daniele De Rossi. A World Cup winner with massive experience of playing at the top level both in Serie A and the Champions League, De Rossi is a player who takes no prisoners and will not shirk from a midfield battle. While he is best known as a defensive midfielder, he can also play in a box-to-box role and, in addition to his qualities as a ball-winner in the centre of midfield, he is also a leader who will provide inspiration and a bit of much needed anger to our midfield.
De Rossi is capable of chipping in with the odd goal, but his main role is to win the ball and disrupt other teams’ rhythm, something sorely lacking against Barcelona.
On a wing and a prayer
In this current United team, creativity is provided by the wingers and the number 10, Wayne Rooney. All that is needed is a ball-winner and leader to control of the centre of midfield in the very biggest games, to win the ball and then simply play it wide or forward to Rooney, the main creative force behind Hernandez. Rooney, Nani, Valencia and Giggs provide the creativity and all that is needed is a ball-winner in the centre of the park to ensure that these players (Rooney especially) receive the ball.
Quite simply, United do not need a creative midfielder as, in the traditional United way, creativity comes from the wingers and forwards. All that is missing from this United team is a leader and ball-winner who will not lie down in a fight and will prevent the side being over-run in central midfield. That man is Daniele De Rossi.