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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.

Kasper Schmeichel wants to play for Denmark 6 days after hernia surgery

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City in action during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was tough, but his son might be tougher.

Leicester City shot-stopper Kasper Schmeichel had hernia surgery earlier Monday, and while that seems like it would sideline him for some time, apparently not.

The 29-year-old tweeted from the hospital bed that he is aiming for a return on Sunday – just six days removed from surgery – when his native Denmark takes on Armenia in World Cup qualification.

That’s…ambitious. Not surprising though, given the ambition Leicester City showed last season stunning everyone to win the title.

Schmeichel was injured against Swansea on Saturday in Premier League play when he made a clearance and came up notably uncomfortable. He was replaced in the 57th minute by new Foxes signing Ron-Robert Zieler. According to manager Claudio Ranieri, the club had already planned surgery for this problem even before Saturday’s flare-up due to the recurring nature of the problem.

Sadly, the Wednesday’s friendly against Liechtenstein comes a little too soon for Schmeichel. It will be the first international match he will miss since March of 2015. We’ll give him a pass, considering most of us would still be in post-op then.

Report: Zardes injury is serious, broken foot could end his season

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 16:  Gyasi Zardes #9 of the United States dribbles against Jefferson Montero #7 of Ecuador during the 2016 Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario match at CenturyLink Field on June 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The United States beat Ecuador 2-1.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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According to Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep, the injury that forced Gyasi Zardes to withdraw from USMNT consideration for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers is serious and could have much larger consequences.

Zardes reportedly suffered a broken right foot, and could not just miss the rest of the 2016 MLS season, but the rest of the calendar year, ruling him out of not just the two upcoming matches, but also the beginning of the Hexagonal in November should the U.S. advance to the next round.

The 24-year-old was injured just after halftime in an MLS match against Vancouver on Saturday, when he was brought down by Kendall Watson. It’s hard to see in full-speed what happens, but upon closer inspection, it appears that Watson’s follow-through catches the inside of Zardes’s right foot. He continued to play but looked less than healthy when he was finally substituted off in the 87th minute.

Zardes has been a rare youthful yet important cog in the USMNT machine the past few years. He played every minute of the Copa America run to the 3rd place match, and he has missed just two matches since making his debut in January of 2015, giving him 31 caps already despite a debut just 19 months ago.

The injury is also a serious blow for the LA Galaxy. Zardes had come onto the field in the 31st minute to replace an injured Steven Gerrard, and in-form defender Jelle van Damme had also departed the match with a knee ligament injury which will see him miss 2-3 weeks.

Michail Antonio thought he was being pranked when he got his England call-up

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28:  Michail Antonio of West Ham during the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham at Etihad Stadium on August 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Many were surprised when they saw West Ham winger Michail Antonio on Sam Allardyce‘s first England squad list.

Including Michail Antonio.

In fact, Antonio admitted he thought he was being pranked, or at the very least, the butt of a joke. Then he saw the proof, and began to get emotional.

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Speaking with the official England Instagram account, Antonio said, “So literally I’ve done an interview at the end of the game [West Ham’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City on Sunday] and then I’ve come in and the physio’s come over to me and gone ‘you’ve been called up.’ I was like ‘haha funny’ and he’s gone ‘no no seriously’ and I was like ‘good banter!'”

[ MORE: West Ham falls to Manchester City 3-1 ]

The 26-year-old said he stared at the physio for a good 30 seconds before he was shown the official paper, at which point he began “welling up.” The water works came soon after. “So I gave my missus a call, obviously she doesn’t pick up. And then I just got myself mentally ready and waited for it to come out.”

Antonio has two goals in three Premier League games this season, although he struggled in West Ham’s season opener against Chelsea when forced to deputize at right-back. The London-born winger has never played under Allardyce, having joined the Hammers just a few months after Big Sam’s departure from West Ham.

Earthquakes fire longtime general manager John Doyle

SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 25: San Jose Earthquakes owner, John Doyle announces the San Jose Earthquakes new stadium ground breaking set for October 21st 2012 before the game between the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium on August 25, 2012 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Tony Medina/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Earthquakes fired longtime general manager John Doyle on Monday, replacing him with technical director Chris Leitch on an interim basis.

Coach Dominic Kinnear and his staff remain in place, the team said.

Doyle, who in 2005 was the inaugural member of the San Jose Earthquakes Hall of Fame, had been the general manager since October 2007 and helped bring the franchise back following a two-year absence. He is a former player, assistant coach and color analyst with the organization.

San Jose has a 7-8-11 record for seventh place in the Western Conference and was three points back of Portland for the final playoff berth.