Replacing Paul Scholes: Manchester United’s long-held weakness sending Red Devils to new depths

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If you were to pick one place where Sunderland won Tuesday’s League Cup match, the 56th minute insertion of Adam Johnson would stand out. Four minutes after Manchester United’s equalizer, the Red Devils appeared on the verge of controlling the game. Instead, Black Cats’ manager Gus Poyet brought Johnson on at Emanuele Giaccherini’s expense, sent right back Phil Bardsley sailing up the right flank (occupying Patrice Evra) and allowed his pace-filled winger to go at United midfielder Tom Cleverley.

In the 62nd minute, Johnson drew a penalty on Cleverley, creating the chance that would yield the game winning goal. Minutes later, Johnson again carried the ball past Cleverley to create a chance from distance. By the time the 75th minute arrived, David Moyes had called on Darren Fletcher, electing to shore up his team at Cleverley’s expense.

It was a match up you’d never expect Cleverley to win, exactly the reason the 24-year-old is a central midfielder as opposed to a wide player. In creating and exploiting it, Gus Poyet deserves praise for a tactic that does beyond reductive Xs and Os displays. At the same time, a glaring weakness in United’s squad that’s been harped on for years was seized upon by one of the Premier League’s bottom dwellers, providing indisputable evidence that United need to upgrade in the winter window.

For years, the brilliance of Alex Ferguson allowed the Red Devils to overcome their soft midfield, even if it that brilliance could do little to overcome Barcelona in two Champions League finals or prevent Manchester United from an embarrassing group stage elimination in the 2011-12 tournament. It also failed to realize Ferguson’s successor was unlikely to replicate his ability to work the problem, making his (and United’s) unwillingness to address the weakness even more curious.

This isn’t something that’s surfaced this year. Ever since the miles started to show on Paul Scholes (pictured, above), Manchester United has had a problem finding somebody to partner Michael Carrick in the middle. Darren Fletcher was that man for a while, but illness sidetracked his career. Anderson was purchased from Porto as a player to groom for the role, but we’re long past debating whether that move has been a bust. They tried to get Ander Herrera and Cesc Fabregas in the summer, and Wayne Rooney may have been asked to descend into the role had Ferguson stayed, but six months into the post-Fergie era, the only thing United have done to try to address their biggest hole was overpay for the now-injured Marouane Fellaini. It’s not good enough.

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Limited but talented, Michael Carrick’s virtues are the subject of a constant debate around Manchester United’s midfield. The England international, however, is less of a problem than the players who have been chosen to play around him. (Photo: Getty Images)

Much of the debate around United’s midfield centers around Carrick, a player of whom there are drastically different opinions. Some think he’s one of the best deep-lying midfielders in England. Others think the devil on his shirt makes him one of the most overrated players in the league. The truth may lie in between, however, with Carrick being both excellent and very limited. Within 30 yards of goal, he is relatively useless, whereas in the middle of the field, his technique and vision (both passing and reading play coming at him) make him a valuable presence. In the defensive half, that ability to read the game makes him a plus defensively, even if his lacks a willingness to ‘get suck in’ that inspires fans.

Like a Andrea Pirlo, Carrick is a player that needs to be complemented, but whereas Juventus now have two ranging, physical players (Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba), United don’t have one. They’ve tried Anderson, and it hasn’t worked. Fletcher’s been out of the picture, and with Fellaini, the Red Devils seem hopeful of having a player that can provide steel in the middle (even if he’s never covered the ground that Fletcher can). Within their current squad, it’s still unclear United have a successor for Scholes.

As Cleverley was being beaten by Johnson on Tuesday, that lack of a successor was clear. While Scholes is no more physically capable of keeping up with a player like Johnson, his intelligence meant the Sunderland winger may not have gotten the ball in the first place. Before his final three or four years at United, Scholes was great at reading those plays and, if not outright intercepting the ball, providing an obstacle when the man turned upfield. While that often resulted in some famously clumsy tackles, it also meant few players were allowed to run at Scholes the way Johnson took on Cleverley at Sunderland.

This has weakness for some time at United, but now that Ferguson’s gone, there’s no reason to avoid addressing it. This summer, United tried but came up short on Herrera and Fábregas. Now, although the options may be more limited in the winter window, it’s more important than ever the Red Devils don’t take this weakness for granted.

They’ve spent in attack, bringing in Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. On the wing, they bought Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia not so long ago. At the back, they’ve invested in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones while adding David de Gea in goal. Contrary to popular complaints, Manchester United are willing to buy.

Now, they need to buy in the middle. Fellaini’s not enough. They need somebody who can complement  Carrick, and they need him in this window.

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Southampton

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday, with the Blues setting up an FA Cup final clash with Manchester United on May 19.

Antonio Conte‘s side scored twice in the second half with Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata on the scoresheet against a sorry Saints outfit.

Here’s what we learned as Chelsea have set up a tasty clash with Jose Mourinho next month.


GIROUD AN ELEGANT ASSASSIN

Olivier Giroud is quickly becoming a cult hero at Chelsea. The Frenchman dribbled delicately around three Southampton defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy before prodding home to put his side ahead.

It was a elegant, yet clumsy, goal and summed up Giroud’s penchant for delivering goals of the highest difficulty.

Giroud has now been involved in 22 goals in 26 FA Cup appearances (15 goals, 7 assists), more than any other player in the completion since his debut in 2013.

The Frenchman is now pushing hard to be Chelsea’s first-choice central striker ahead of Alvaro Morata, although the Spaniard did grab a goal late on to wrap up the win.

Giroud has scored four goals in 13 appearances in all competitions since arriving from Arsenal in January but the way he holds the ball up and links with Eden Hazard is a huge plus for Conte. Giroud could also start up top with Morata if Chelsea tweak their system and at the age of 31 there is still plenty of life left in him and not just as a late sub, the role Conte earmarked for him.


COULD CONTE STAY…

Antonio Conte will likely still leave Chelsea at the end of the season but the Italian coach seems to badly want his time at Chelsea to end with a trophy.

But here’s a thought: if Chelsea beat Man United and somehow make it into the top four at Tottenham’s expense (they are five points back with four games to go), will he remain in charge for the final year of his three-year contract?

The Blues cruised into the FA Cup final and looked fired up from the start as Eden Hazard pulled the strings and Giroud made a nuisance of himself.

Conte’s comments all season long suggest he will depart Chelsea this summer and seek a new project, but if he does so after winning the FA Cup (after being runners up last season) to go along with the PL title he won last season, and then finishing fifth, that’s not a bad two years in the PL.

The Italian will depart with his pride and reputation intact even if he doesn’t defeat his old foe Mourinho in the final next month.


SOUTHAMPTON’S STRUGGLES

Saints are in the Premier League’s relegation zone for a reason and their total lack of confidence was clear for all to see at Wembley.

Mark Hughes‘ men have five games left to save themselves but it almost seems as if Saints’ players have resigned themselves to relegation from the Premier League despite sitting just four points from safety. One win in their last 21 PL games (that came against West Brom) tells the story of a side crumbling before our eyes.

After they shipped 12 goals in four Premier League, all of them defeats, Hughes has set Saints up in a 5-3-1-1 formation to try and make them tougher to break down.

It is working, at least defensively, with a 0-0 draw at Leicester on Thursday, but going forward they totally lack any cohesion and only created three real chances on Sunday as Shane Long made a hash of a great opportunity, Charlie Austin hit the post and Nathan Redmond tested Willy Caballero.

Saints are in a really bad place as they now have to find a way to stop themselves hurtling towards relegation. Their game at home against Bournemouth next weekend is a must win. Simple.

Chelsea joins Man Utd in FA Cup Final

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Chelsea will meet old pal Jose Mourinho in the FA Cup Final after beating Southampton 2-0 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata scored the goals for Antonio Conte‘s men, whose date with Manchester United comes at the same venue on May 19.

Southampton will turn its attention back to the relegation battle, four points behind 17th place Swansea City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Willian hit the cross bar with an early effort as Chelsea looked very much up for the semifinal.

Olivier Giroud had a 39th minute chance zip wide of the frame, as Chelsea posted nine of the first half’s 11 shot attempts while holding 60 percent possession.

Saints would have been happy to get to the locker room at nil-nil.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Twenty-eight seconds into the second half: That’s when Giroud scored, with Chelsea’s first long ball knocked down by Eden Hazard on the edge of the 18 and played to the Frenchman.

Giroud cut between two Saints defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with his right foot.

Hazard curled an effort of his own wide in the 48th minute.

Saints snapped to life, and Shane Long touched around Wily Caballero but too strong to equalize at Wembley.

Nathan Redmond forced a wild save out of Caballero in the 72nd minute, and nearly claimed the corner.

McCarthy tipped a Hazard shot over the bar minutes later.

Morata put it to bed on a cross from his in-tune assist man Cesar Azpilicueta.

The finish was thrilling nevertheless, with Charlie Austin hitting the far post and Saints getting a goal line clearance at the other end.

Wenger: Praise after exit announcement “more than I deserve”

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Arsene Wenger doesn’t seem like the type to go on a victory lap, but the Arsenal boss is handling his resignation and the accompanying praise with pure class.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

Wenger announced the end of his long Arsenal tenure earlier this week, and has been met by heaps of praise from ex-players, fans, current Gunners, and even rivals.

The Frenchman addressed the plaudits following a 4-1 win over West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. From the BBC:

“I would like to thank everyone who has been very nice and kind and praised me more than I deserved it. I would like to say thank you everyone. It’s been a great period for me and I’m thankful for that.”

Arsenal punished West Ham after the Irons equalized through Marko Arnautovic, getting a lucky goal from Aaron Ramsey and two fine finishes from Alexandre Lacazette in the win.

“I was focused on winning the game. We just tried to be professional and do our job even when the circumstances are different. It was a good team spirit and good preparation for Thursday.

“I think we constructed patiently. We didn’t make big mistakes. First of all before winning a trophy, you need to get through the semi-finals. This is a good way to prepare – scoring goals against a strong West Ham team who have done well recently.”

Next up: A huge test in the UEFA Europa League semifinals, with Atletico Madrid visiting for Thursday’s first leg. Wenger rested several big names, and Atleti has just one win from its last four matches (including a Madrid Derby draw at the Bernabeu).

WATCH: Chelsea’s Giroud scores 27 seconds after halftime

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Southampton held firm against Chelsea’s challenge for 45 minutes of Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

Well, 45 minutes and 27 seconds.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

The first long ball of the second half saw Chelsea’s Eden Hazard leap to trap, and the Belgian played a quick ball forward to his striker.

That’s Olivier Giroud, who dribbled between two defenders and Saints goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with the outside of his right foot.