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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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Tata Martino on choosing Atlanta: Project “worth more than money”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26: Gerardo Martino of Argentina clls out against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match at MetLife Stadium on June 26, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Chile defeated Argentina 4-2 in penalty kicks. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Paraguay.

Newell’s Old Boys.

Barcelona.

Argentina.

Atlanta United.

That’s the career path for new Atlanta boss Tata Martino, announced Wednesday as the first manager in United history.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

It’s a fascinating hire for the club and its league, Major League Soccer, as United prepares to debut in 2017.

And it’s also interesting on account of the coach. The 53-year-old Argentine remains in his prime, a three-time Copa America runner-up who was organizing Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and company just three years ago.

Timothy Pratt filed a report on the hiring for the New York Times on Wednesday, one that speaks to Martino’s excitement at helping start a club from the ground up. The coach is excited to aid technical director and USMNT legend Carlos Bocanegra in guiding players from youth on up, similar to what Oscar Pareja has done at FC Dallas.

From NYTimes.com:

Martino underlined the importance of youth player development at his new club “based on how I became a player at Newell’s.” The club is known for grooming players, including a young Lionel Messi, who played for Martino with Barcelona and Argentina. “Working with the youth teams is fundamental for me, no matter where in the world I’m coaching,” he said.

“But the proposal they’re offering me — to install my style of play and build from the ground up — is worth more than money,” he said.

That’s the kinda hire that should be high-fived. Let’s see how it plays out.

Europa League: Mourinho says targeted Man Utd must win; Saints shorthanded

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United makes his way to the tunnel after the final whistle  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Europa League goes into its second day of group play with the onus on the biggest club in the tournament to pick up a win.

Don’t believe us? Ask Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

“To be honest, I think we have to win,” Mourinho said at his pre-match press conference. “If we don’t win, I would say we’d have to win all the last four matches, which is difficult, so I think it is very important that we win this game.”

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

United fell 1-0 at Feyenoord to open the group stage, and now hosts Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday. He knows its the equivalent of a massive Cup match for the visitors.

“The Europa League is a competition Man United isn’t normally in, so when these teams have a giant like Man United in front of them, it’s a huge moment for them and they come to the game with incredible motivation.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start for United, as there’s a chance that Anthony Martial will rejoin the side. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out, and Wayne Rooney (back) and Luke Shaw (illness) may not play.

The other Premier League side in play is Southampton, as the Saints take a long flight to Israel for a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff against Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Saints handled Sparta Prague at home, and now face the Camels, who went to Inter Milan and won. Southampton is without Charlie Austin, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand, and Steven Davis.

Should be a very decent match from Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva.

Elsewhere

all times ET

Mainz at Gabala — 11 a.m.
Young Boys at Astana — 11 a.m.
Osmanlispor at Zurich — 1 p.m.
Red Bull Salzburg at Schalke — 1 p.m.
PAOK at Liberec — 1 p.m.
Qarabag at Fiorentina — 1 p.m.
Villarreal at Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m.
Nice at Krasnodar — 1 p.m.
Standard Liege at Ajax — 1 p.m.
Braga at Shakhtar Donetsk — 1 p.m.
Panathinaikos at Celta Vigo — 1 p.m.
Inter Milan at Sparta Prague — 1 p.m.
Konyaspor at Gent — 1 p.m.
Sassuolo at Genk — 3:05 p.m.
Zorya at Manchester United — 3:05 p.m.
Anderlecht at Saint-Etienne — 3:05 p.m.
Apoel Nicosia at Olympiacos — 3:05 p.m.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Dundalk — 3:05 p.m.
Feyenoord at Fenerbahce — 3:05 p.m.
Rapid Wien at Athletic Bilbao — 3:05 p.m.
Viktoria Plzen at Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m.
AZ Alkmaar at Zenit Saint-Petersburg — 3:05 p.m.
Astra Giurgiu at AS Roma — 3:05 p.m.

Wenger after UCL win: This year’s Arsenal has “interesting potential”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal looks on during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Arsenal FC and FC Basel 1893 at the Emirates Stadium on September 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is growing in confidence when it comes to his Gunners’ chances in England and Europe, and it’s not hard to see why.

Four days after Arsenal battered Chelsea 3-0 in Premier League action, the Gunners went out and handled FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Theo Walcott scored both goals in the 2-0 win, and there could’ve been so many more. Arsenal was fast, deliberate, creative, and dangerous. The finishing was not ideal, but the promise was massive.

Perhaps more important, the Gunners posted a third-straight clean sheet and have allowed just four goals in eight matches since the 4-3 loss to Liverpool that opened the PL season.

And Wenger acknowledges that his side can do big things, provided it doesn’t get too full of itself after solid performances. From Arsenal.com:

“It looks like the team has interesting potential. We have to be ambitious and, as you know, keep our feet on the ground to continue to develop. We know exactly how we want to play football and we have to continue to stick to that and get better at it. That demands big focus and some leadership inside the squad. It also requires humility.”

Arsenal has a very winnable run in the Premier League, and could be right there with Manchester City by the end of October. And with a winnable UCL group, who knows what the Gunners could do with a decent knockout round draw?

Bayern can’t break down Simeone’s Atleti: “We played too slowly”

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Carlo Ancelotti, Manager of Bayern Muenchen looks on before the UEFA Champions League group D match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 28, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich sits second in Group D of this season’s UEFA Champions League after losing its toughest match of the bunch: a trip to the Vicente Calderon.

Atletico Madrid won 1-0 when Antoine Griezmann linked up with Yannick Carrasco for a first half goal and Diego Simeone’s stubborn defense lived up to its reputation in blanking the Bavarians.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Manager Carlo Ancelotti has been frustrated by Simeone in the past, perhaps most notably in his brief stint at Real Madrid. But the Bayern boss says the loss was down to speed.

“We tried to get back into the game but we played too slowly, which is why we did not have many chances to equalize,” Ancelotti said. “It’s never nice to lose.”

Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer also acknowledged a lack of speed in a way, pointing at urgency when he said, “Atlético showed a killer instinct tonight and we didn’t.”

Bayern hosts PSV Eindhoven in its next UCL match on Oct. 19.