By George Ankers
Manchester United’s need for a central midfielder has become a running joke in the Premier League.
For so many transfer windows now as barely warrants counting, a European football Yellow Pages has been collectively linked with finally becoming the man to plug the Red Devils’ most glaring weakness. Every time, as the days count down towards the window’s close, the exasperated mutters intensify as fans bemoan the failure to secure such a key signing.
A bit of muscle is what is required, so they say, someone who can actually tackle the ball and boss the centre of the pitch just like Roy Keane used to do. Michael Carrick, of course, is too soft and retiring to be effective as the deepest midfielder.
But Sir Alex Ferguson is not an idiot. The club’s greatest ever manager, winner of 12 Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions Leagues, has not been totally oblivious to some astoundingly clear, root-cause Kryptonite slap bang in the centre of the pitch for years.
The reason why Sir Alex has neither signed a combative central midfielder nor bred one through the youth ranks is because he does not need one.
Though there are some who, you suspect, will never be won over, Carrick is in the form of his life. Comfortably the best English midfielder in the business, he performs a slightly less anchored version of Sergio Busquets’ role at Barcelona and does it very well indeed; that includes the defensive side of his game.
Assertions that Carrick does not do enough to shield his defence are not borne out by the statistics.
According to Whoscored.com, the United man’s 2.2 interceptions per game puts him above John Obi Mikel (1.8), Lucas Leiva (1.8), Youssouf Mulumbu (1.6) Gareth Barry (1.3), Ramires (1.3) Yaya Toure (0.9), Marouane Fellaini (0.9) and Javi Garcia (0.9). Of the top eight teams in the Premier League, only Mikel Arteta (2.4) and Sandro (3.6) in his position have done better. Carrick is more than capable of snuffing out danger.
Perhaps the blame for a defensive record that has seen Sir Alex’s side concede only seven league goals fewer than basement club QPR should be laid, simply, at the defence.
It is here where United have been visibly lacking and it is here where they most urgently need reinforcement. Chief among those needs is to replace Patrice Evra sooner rather than later.
After a strong beginning to his Old Trafford career, the Frenchman has spiralled downwards over the past three seasons into an increasing liability. This trend has continued in 2012-13 but it is obscured by his unusual contributions at the other end.
In netting four times this season, Evra has already more than doubled his previous tally in a Red Devils shirt, but he is in the team primarily to defend and is made to look silly too often.
Witness the away trip to Southampton on September 2. Had it not been for Robin van Persie’s late heroics, United would have lost 2-1 and both goals were the left-back’s fault – the first when he lost track of Jason Puncheon, who delivered the crucial cross, and the second when he slipped to the floor and allowed a free header.
Witness, too, the now-biannual slaughter of Evra by Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon, who demonstrates every time that he faces United how much the Frenchman struggles with pace.
The real problem for Sir Alex is that his team allow the opposition to make too many crosses and defend them poorly. United have conceded 42 goals in all competitions this season and 16 have been the result of a cross from wide. It is clearly on the flanks where they are being exposed – and that is not to mention the conceding of corners, from which a further nine goals have been let in.
In both the concession and defending of crosses and set-pieces, Evra is a key culprit and he lags behind his top-six peers in keeping out threats at left-back.
On average, the No.3 is dribbled 0.6 times per game by opposition players. He shares this statistic with both Ashley Cole and Jan Vertonghen but both make more tackles per game (2.7 and 3.0, respectively, to the former Monaco star’s 2.5). Manchester City’s Gael Clichy, however, is comfortably better (makes 3.4 tackles and is dribbled 0.4 times in an average game).
Evra’s compatriot is not a realistic signing, however, and there would be better besides.
One man at whom Sir Alex might have wanted to look is Southampton’s Luke Shaw. Emerging this season as a fine and surprisingly mature defender, the teenager’s stats are roughly on par with Evra’s in a worse team (2.4 tackles and dribbled 0.5 times) and he clearly has the potential to get several factors better.
But Shaw has only just signed a new contract and is unlikely to leave. Meanwhile, Sir Alex has stated his intention to loan out Alexander Buttner next season with the intention of him returning to become first-choice left-back. So, to fix the Evra problem, he needs someone who can step in and be at the top of his game in the short-to-medium term.
Leighton Baines is the answer. A long-term target for United, it makes sense to finally push for him now. Not only is he very rarely evaded by wingers (at 0.3 per game, only Nicky Shorey is dribbled past less often of the league’s regular left-backs) but he snuffs out danger more quickly than Evra, making 1.7 interceptions per game compared to the 31-year-old’s 1.2.
The Everton star is also now indisputably the division’s finest crosser of the ball and averages a phenomenal 3.3 key passes per game. His attacking contributions far eclipse Evra’s deceptive forward offerings.
The Toffees’ financial situation, it is known, means that they will sell their best players if the right offer is made. With United’s prolific offence firing them 10 goals clear of any other Premier League team, the addition of Baines’s quality at both ends would surely put them out of Manchester City’s reach.
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