Jim White

United’s hole in the middle

Jim White

In Manchester on Thursday morning, contrary to expectation, the sun did rise. Well, I assume it did. The place got a bit lighter under a blanket of cloud. And the tram suffered a routine delay.

Mind, for many, it was not bright, confident dawn. It had been a traumatic night for the local teams the evening before. At the Etihad Manchester City won against Bayern Munich, garnered the 10 points normally considered sufficient for progress in the Champions League, but, to the head-scratching bewilderment of those in the boardroom who believed that chucking money at any problem is bound to resolve it, they were eliminated by results elsewhere.

For those of a red persuasion, however, the pain was far more pointed. At least City were able to comfort themselves they lost out in the toughest group. United contrived to throw away the equivalent of a Champions league bye. What was even more worrying for their fans was that the performance in Basel was symptomatic of what so many have been saying about their team for so long: this is a side in desperate need of creativity in the middle.

Whatever City’s shortcomings may be, you could look at the performance against Bayern at home (albeit the second team) and against Villarreal away and see development, potential, possibility. After the trauma of what has become known as the Carlos Tevez Memorial match in Munich, Roberto Mancini has forged a strong, purposeful unit. The central core of Hart, Kompany, Toure and Silva is good enough to progress in Europe. Though this year it will clearly have to be on a Thursday night.

There is no such consolation for United. Against Basel they looked thin, poor, bereft. Lining up with a 19-year-old centre back and a bloke twice his age in midfield might be fine for a dads and lads kickaround, but it isn’t going to get you far in Europe.

Central midfield is a football team’s engine and heart. In the pursuit of success, it cannot be staffed, as it invariably is at United these days, by the out-of-position, the over-the-hill or the simply not good enough. Where Paul Scholes and Roy Keane used to march with imperious tread, now United dispatch Ji-Sung Park and Michael Carrick.

That way trophies do not lie.

For United fans, the reputation of Tom Cleverley has soared in absentia. At the start of the season he looked the business: swift, clever, dynamic. But he only played a handful of games before disappearing to the physio room. Like the Da Silva twins, Cleverley’s career has been too compromised by injury to yet know if he could provide the answer to the midfield gap.

Besides, even if he is as good as he seems, he would only provide half a solution. United sorely need a pair of ideas-men in the middle. With the next generation - specifically Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba - still four or five seasons from fruition (statistics tell us the best central midfielders are in their mid-twenties; old enough to have learned their craft, still young enough to put that experience into action), recourse to the transfer market seems United’s only way out.

Despite what some of those venting their spleen on Twitter might suggest, Sir Alex Ferguson is fully aware of his deficit. He has been trying to address the problem for some time. He thought he had Samir Nasri signed up in the summer. Only for City to come in, dangle their enormous wad and steal the player from under his nose. Then Wesley Sneijder was courted, until his absurd wage demands scuppered a move.

Sure, as the excellent football finance blogger Andy Green pointed out, for the amount United pay every year in interest on unwanted Glazer-stacked loans, they could pay for five Wesley Sneijders. But Ferguson’s reticence was more to do with the effect such preposterous wages would have on the dressing room morale than on the Glazer bottom line. As was demonstrated on Wednesday, however, it may have been a false economy. United missed out on a potential £20 million in revenue from a Champions League run. Not even Wesley could have soaked up all that.

Ferguson’s troubles, however, will not find speedy solution. January rarely sees the kind of quality player he needs on the market. Especially if he cannot offer the lure of the Champions League.

And with his titan Nemanja Vidic now out for the season, with City away in the third round of the FA Cup, the shape of things to come suddenly decidedly un-trophylike.

In the immediate aftermath of his untimely exit on Wednesday Ferguson reflected that the Europa League can only be viewed as a dismal punishment for a club of United’s standing. From Champions League finalists three times in the last five years to the tin-pot after-thought, he had a right to sound embarrassed. And yet, given the way his season is shaping, he may soon come to realise that Thursday night may be the best he can hope for.

A final in Bucharest in May, maybe even against City, could have the sun shining in Manchester again.

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