Thursday, November 12, 2009

Owen Hargreaves and the United Midfield

When Owen Hargreaves finally returns from injury, in what may be his last chance to achieve his prime, United manager Alex Ferguson can again field his strongest midfield.

But the Englishman, so influential in United's 2008 European double-winning season, is not the only significant addition required to create United's most balanced side.

In a 4-5-1, Ferguson's preferred—though not always proven—formation in Europe and major domestic matches, Hargreaves and Fletcher are a staple. In a 4-4-2, the two comprise the ideal pairing, though it could be debatable.

If only Giggs and Scholes weren't solely effective against lesser quality midfields. Psychologically and physically, against sides like Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City, and further at Inter, Barcelona, or Madrid, United will need Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher to partner in 4-4-2.

Such a pairing, going forward, isn't disimiliar to a central pairing of Carrick with either player, but both Fletcher and Hargreaves bring more energy, truculence, and consequently control to the middle.

Ultimately, Giggs or Scholes could still feature in a five-manned midfield, or if Hargreaves has to slot in at right-back, partner Fletcher in the middle. With the Canadian-born Englishman back in the fold, at no point should Carrick's name appear in any ideal starting eleven.

However, as with any central pairing not containing Scholes or even Giggs, this leaves a need to attack and counter through their wings. The imbalance created by having two holding midfielders can be compensated by faster, more creative wingplay.

The left wing has been a void this season. The star-crossed Nani continues to waste his potential. His decision-making hasn't improved, despite being given more than enough time on the field to grow. He stops when he should start, and dribbles when he should pass. He has no composure. He defines inconsistency. He's done.

United's right flank is in somewhat better shape. Serviceable but not particularly exciting, Antonio Valencia can supply crosses regularly, but he almost always dribbles to his right, making it increasingly predictable for defenders to smother.

Furthermore, if United aren't on the counter, the opposing team generally has plenty of bodies in the middle, which isn't really ideal with usually just Rooney with Berbatov in heading positions.

A team with two such skillful forwards would benefit more from a counterattacking philosophy, wingers going past and through defenders at pace or playing off Berbatov to eventually feed a darting Rooney.

Gabriel Obertan has captured the imagination of United faithful with his pace and naivete. As such, the French prospect is not only an obvious (and merciful) replacement for the egregious Nani, but a feasible alternative to Valencia.

Naturally right-footed, the French prospect can cut in effectively from the left, a-la Ronaldo, or drive down the right, with more guile and abandon than the straightforward Ecuadorian.

When Obertan is not opposite Valencia, Zoran Tosic is the man to drive past defenders, deliver set pieces, and provide a natural width most teams lack and crave.

However, Alex Ferguson is, so far, willing to give Tosic the consistent run-out he deserves. Whether or not the Serbian was bought with fellow midfielder Adam Llajc simply to bring security or comfort to Nemanja Vidic, he's proven in few chances that he's a quick and tidy player.

At 22, Tosic may have less gusto than a similarly aged Giggs, but there's no reason he can't fulfill the same classic left-winger mold, in a natural role every team craves, for the next many years in Manchester.

If only his crotchety manager agreed. But Ferguson precluded the Serb from United's European squad this year, making the youngster's maturation dependent on his inclusion in United's domestic games this season.

With a combination of Obertan, Tosic, and Valencia, United's wings are very dynamic. Hargreaves and Fletcher can gamely control the middle while Tosic, in his natural position, provides balance and flare as Obertan or Valencia slice in from the right, supplying Berbatov to pivot and create for Rooney running behind defenses.

As stated, Scholes and Giggs can still contribute in the center, albeit sparingly and against the right opponents.

But just because Ronaldo is plying his trade in Madrid doesn't mean United can't, or shouldn't, continue to feature wingplay, particularly on the counter, and especially since a marque creative midfielder wasn't sought in the summer transfer window.

And without a Wesley Sneidjer or Yoann Gourcuff to partner world-beater Fletcher in the middle, Ferguson will need to trust both Hargreaves and his two young wingers if United are to regain their attacking acumen and compete with Arsenal and Chelsea throughout the season.

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