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Old 28th January 2006, 19:01   #1
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Default The New Midfield General (Ferguson needs the Glazer's support and they need him)

The New Midfield General
Article by Richard Shepherd
United Rant
January 28, 2006

As predicted in No Usual Suspects here on RANT, Sir Alex Ferguson is still bemusing Manchester United fans with his refusal or failure to sign a central midfield player. Despite his new founded admiration of the Glazers - and both David Gill and Ferguson have spoken about having resources to buy big in the summer - the club now has only one natural central midfield player fit, putting United fans in the somewhat unfamiliar position of praying nothing happens to Darren Fletcher! Amidst the manager's resolve however, one signing at Old Trafford slipped almost unnoticed through the net.

Although it didn't escape the eagle eyes here at RANT, two weeks ago Manchester United made a major signing that was almost lost everywhere else in the controversy of Sir Alex Ferguson's public backing for the Glazers' tenure. But it was not the signing of French full-back Patrice Evra, nor the deal that brought Serbia and Montenegro Centre Back Nemanja Vidic to Old Trafford. Indeed although this signing was made over Sir Alex Ferguson's head, there was no question of it undermining the Manchester United manager. The Glazers performed their own coup, signing Ed Woodward, a former investment banker who played a key role in structuring the takeover of Manchester United while he was at JP Morgan.

The Times reported on 12th January that Woodward started work for Glazer's takeover vehicle Red Football on November 28th 2005, but the media only learned of this appointment on the 11th January - making the timing of Sir Alex Ferguson's backing of the Glazer's on the 13th January intriguing. Woodward's role has been described as 'multi-faceted', working alongside Gill and the Board, but reporting to Malcolm and Joel Glazer. The role covers all of Glazer's UK interests and although his focus will be on United, he will be negotiating with JP Morgan, the chief lender in the takeover deal and will play a major role in the refinancing of the debt.

Well known for his stubbornness, Sir Alex Ferguson's u-turn on the merits of the Glazers' ownership was remarkable as it comes at a time when supporters are praying for him to perform an about-face on the signing of a central midfield player. Maybe The Independent Manchester United Supporters Trust had a point when they said that "It would be an extremely foolish and short-lived employee who did anything other than praise his employer in public". But perhaps this doesn't quite get to the bottom of what the canny Scot was up to. While burying bad news is a task all institutions undertake when there is other bad news to bury it in, I am not for one minute suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson's comments were deliberately aimed at taking the heat out of the news of this appointment. I believe he was up to something else.

In the Glazer's business plan 25m per year has been set aside for transfers. Of course the club can raise more than this by procuring more money for the sale of its players, and if there was an emergency (i.e. injuries threatened its ability to secure a Champions League place) it would be logical for more money to be made available.

With Keane gone, Scholes and Fortune out seemingly for the season, Phil Neville and Kleberson sold, Liam Miller and both David and Richard Jones on loan, and even adopted central midfield players O'Shea, Giggs, and Smith carrying injuries, the failure to capture a central midfield player at the beginning of the season looks like a miscalculation. All transfers in the last two seasons involving outfield players have focussed on youngsters, but central midfield is the position on the pitch that needs to be mastered - hence the need for an experienced player. Such is the inactivity at Old Trafford in the search for such a player that supporters are not even able to accurately identify what kind of central midfield player Sir Alex Ferguson is looking for.

There are four types of central midfield players:-

The Defensive Player: - This player's main task is to sit in front of the back four and protect the defence by breaking up attacks. This player is usually less technically gifted than the other midfielders, but their importance to the team cannot be undermined. They are excellent readers of the game and their value is in their tough tackling. This player's contribution sometimes goes unheralded because their main aim is destructive rather than constructive. Examples of this type of player are Gattuso, Gilberto Silva, van Bommel, Hamann, Essien (at Chelsea), Gravesen, and Duscher.

The Water Carrier: - This player's main task is to dictate the tempo of the game. They have a great range of passing and movement although their role is even more unheralded than with the defensive player. This type of player is rarely seen in the British game which is more frenetic in nature, but in Italy and Spain a team can only accommodate this player if he is surrounded by world leaders in attack and elsewhere in midfield. One of the reasons that both Veron and Kleberson failed to have the same impact in British football as they had with Lazio or Brazil was because they were in essence more water carriers than defensive midfield players or playmakers. Examples of teams using water carriers would be the French world cup winning team, or Brazil. Players of this type include Deschamps and Seedorf.

The Playmaker: - This is a player who is excellent in their passing, movement, vision and mobility. They seem to act as the attacking catalyst for their team. They may or may not be excellent tacklers, but they do have an uncanny ability to score goals regularly from fairly deep positions. Players that typify this position include Zidane, Lampard, Pirlo, Ballack, Okocha, and Scholes.

The Box-to-Box Player: This type of player is necessary for a team to be great in the British game. This player is best defined by their engine - their ability to act as a defensive midfield player, to win all of the midfield battles, and also their ability to drive the team on. Their role is unselfish and to do all of this requires an engine to seemingly be all over the pitch at the same time, to break down the willpower of their opponents, an ability to score goals at important times, and a football brain to mastermind the whole game and carry through the vision of the manager to the rest of the team. Players of this type are very rare, but include Keane, Gerrard, Viera, Essien (at Lyon), and a younger Edgar Davids.

It is fairly clear to most observers that Manchester United need at least two of these central midfielders, but which types of midfielders is a hotly disputed area of debate. The signing of one player will determine the nature of the other. To go back to Sir Alex Ferguson's past; he has always valued box-to-box players (Robson, Keane) more highly than more defensive players (Ince). If he signs a defensive midfield player, then the nature of the playmaker becomes far more critical - he needs a world leader in his class. And if he signs a box-to-box player than the nature of the playmaker becomes slightly less critical.

Sir Alex Ferguson knows that it is impossible to win anything without a world class midfield. With one, anything is possible. Manchester United won the Treble with a world class midfield, and Liverpool the Champions League. The problem the club face at the moment is that not only does central midfield need improving, but players who have been brought in to plug a hole are now themselves injured, leaving the club scavenging its non-loan academy players and badgering half-injured players to play in these positions. The need for a world class central midfield is best highlighted at Chelsea, where even without a world class strike force, they are able to command the Premiership and gain good European results consistently. It would seem logical for Sir Alex Ferguson to dip into the transfer market since, without any central midfield, United's position looks, at best, tenuous.

Which brings us back to the Glazers

There can be no doubt that a good positioning in the league this year is crucial for Manchester United in lieu of the amount of debt the Glazers have taken on. Although the Glazer's financing has been budgeted with the expectation that Manchester United will finish no lower than fourth in the Premiership, Sir Alex Ferguson will need to remove any obstacles that threaten their existence in next year's Champion's League. This means finishing second in the Premiership is a priority.

Because of statements made by Sir Alex Ferguson before the Glazer takeover aligning himself with the majority of fans, some would argue that Glazer versus Ferguson is an unhappy marriage - hence the reaction to Sir Alex Ferguson's statements backing the Glazers. However, my reading of the situation is that it is in many ways a happy marriage. Sir Alex Ferguson needs the Glazer's support and they need him. It may even be written into the Glazer's financial arrangements that they cannot go against the board until they service the debt, without incurring significant financial penalties, as this increases the risk of the financiers. Financiers like to manage risk and Sir Alex Ferguson's 19 years ensures stability.

This will be severely scrutinised however, if Sir Alex Ferguson fails to qualify for next year's Champions League, and the chances are that if he fails to find a decent central midfield player from one of the categories listed above, he must at least sign another type of central midfield player:-

The Utility Player: This type of player is usually a full back or centre back, but can sometimes be a striker who has failed to make the grade, but who is an excellent tackler and good reader of the game. This type of player is usually not world class in that they are unable to stake a claim for a regular position even though they can be effective. Manchester United is usually blessed with such players and often the utility player has been able to completely dominate a world class midfield (P. Neville vs Viera for instance). Examples of this type of player include Ronnie Johnsen, Phil Neville, and Guti at Real Madrid.

Not signing a central midfield player at the beginning of the season was a mistake. Not signing one in January would be worse both in football and financial terms. For me, Sir Alex Ferguson was covering up this mistake by cleverly realigning himself with the club's new owners. But if United fail to qualify for the Champions League next season, that realignment will look fragile.

So while Sir Alex Ferguson gambles dangerously with the club's future, Malcolm Glazer is leaving nothing to chance appointing the one person who knows everything about the club's precarious financial position. If you were a football man you'd have to say that Glazer is playing Ferguson off the park with the signing of his own utility player.
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