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.

U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame ballot revealed, including Beckham

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CHICAGO (AP) David Beckham, the English midfielder who brought increased visibility to American soccer and won a pair of Major League Soccer titles while playing for the LA Galaxy from 2007-12, is among 12 first-time candidates on the 33-player ballot for the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Defender Steve Cherundolo, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and forward Brian Ching, key parts of the U.S. national team, also are new candidates on the ballot announced Wednesday. Other first-timers include defenders Chris Albright, Danny Califf and Tina Frimpong Ellertson; goalkeepers Joe Cannon and Kevin Hartman, and midfielders Amado Guevara, Eddie Gaven and Leslie Osborne.

Defender Chris Armas and midfielder Jason Kreis, currently Orlando’s coach, are in their final year of eligibility. Former midfielder Ben Olsen, now D.C. United’s coach, is among the holdovers.

Other men on the ballot include goalkeeper Pat Onstad; defenders Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk and Tony Sanneh; midfielders Chris Klein, Eddie Lewis and Steve Ralston; and forwards Jeff Cunningham, Clint Mathis, Jaime Moreno, Ante Razov, Taylor Twellman and Josh Wolff.

Women on the ballot include goalkeeper Briana Scurry; defenders Kate Sobrero Markgraf and Heather Mitts; midfielder Aly Wagner; and forward Tiffeny Milbrett.

Voting will take place among men’s and women’s national team coaches, Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer league management, U.S. Soccer Federation leadership, Hall of Famers and media. Each voter can list up to 10 players, and a player must appear on at least 66.7 percent of ballots to earn election.

Among those on the builder ballot are former USSF President Bob Contiguglia; referee Esse Baharmast; coaches Gene Chyzowych, Eddie Firmani, Gordon Jago and Joe Machnik; and administrators Richard Groff, Tim Leiweke, Francisco Marcos and Kevin Payne.

The 15-player veteran ballot, voted on only by Hall of Famers, has George Best, Chico Borja, Mike Burns, John Doyle, Marco Etcheverry, Linda Hamilton, Mary Harvey, Chris Henderson, Dominic Kinnear, Shep Messing, Cindy Parlow, Tiffany Roberts, Mike Sorber, Tisha Venturini-Hoch and Roy Wegerle.

The hall’s building in Oneonta, New York, closed in 2010. A new facility in Frisco, Texas, is under construction and slated to open in 2018.

Premier League stats of the season — Opta

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With the 2016-17 Premier League season officially complete, a look at some of the compelling, shocking and record-breaking stats, from August to May — all stats courtesy of the good folks at Opta:

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

30 — Chelsea (30 wins) have broken the PL record for most wins in a season (previously 29, by Chelsea in 2004-05, and 2005-06)

457 — Only Chelsea (457 minutes) were in a losing position in PL matches for less time than Liverpool (471 mins) this season

114 — Chelsea used all three substitutes in every Premier League game this season (114 in total) – they are only the second team to do this in a 38-game Premier League season (Manchester City, in 2014-15)

230 — Michy Batshuayi’s title-winning goal for Chelsea at West Bromwich Albion was his first PL shot on target since Sept. 24th, 2016 (230 days), and only his third overall in the competition

3,420 — Cesar Azpilicueta became the fourth outfield player in PL history to play every minute of a title-winning season (after Gary Pallister, in 1992-93; John Terry, in 2014-15; and Wes Morgan, in 2015-16)

1 — Because of their opening day victory against Leicester City, Hull City spent one more day on top of the PL than Tottenham Hotspur did in 2016-17 (0)

86 — 11 previous PL champions have won the title with a point tally equal to or less than Tottenham’s 86-point tally in 2016-17

+60 — Tottenham Hotspur’s goal difference of +60 is the highest in PL history for a non-title winning side

3 — Tottenham were the only club in England’s top four tiers to see as many as three players score 20+ goals for them in all competitions this season (Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min)

6 — Harry Kane now has six PL hat-tricks for Spurs, twice as many as any other player for the club (Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe, both with 3)

0 — Liverpool were unbeaten in the PL against the top seven teams this season (12 played: 7 won, 5 drawn, 0 lost) but their record against the other 13 sides was (26 played: 15 won, 5 drawn, 6 lost)

38 — Both Arsenal and Manchester United have finished outside of the top four of the top-flight for the first time since 1978-79 (38 years)

600 — Manchester United became the first team to win 600 PL matches (962 played: 604 won, 209 drawn, 149 lost)

2,000 — Manchester United also became the first team to win 2000 points in the PL, with victory over Watford in February

11 — 11 different English players made 20+ PL appearances for Bournemouth this season. The last PL team to do this was Aston Villa, in 2000-01 (also 11 players)

48.8% — West Bromwich Albion scored a league-high proportion of their goals from set-piece situations this season (48.8%). They also conceded the lowest proportion from set-pieces (21.6%)

70 — Swansea City conceded 70 goals in the PL this season. Only two teams have conceded more in a 38-game PL season and survived relegation (Wigan, in 2009-10 — 79, and West Bromwich Albion in 2010-11 — 71)

13 — Hull City gave away 13 penalties this season, the most of any side in a single PL campaign

Men in Blazers podcast: “The Blazers” awards, plus John Terry’s farewell

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Rog and Davo recap the race for Top Four, John Terry‘s farewell at Chelsea and another Harry Kane hat trick. Plus, they roll out the red carpet for the 2016-17 end-of-season awards, “The Blazers.”

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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“Three trophies and CL”: Mourinho relieved after “most difficult season”

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Don’t try to tell Jose Mourinho that his first season at Manchester United wasn’t a raging success, because all you’d get in return is a simple shake of the head before he walks away.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

Following Wednesday’s Europa League final victory over Ajax, one which put Man United into next season’s UEFA Champions League, Mourinho was adamant that the club’s 2016-17 season was a success, despite the fact the Red Devils finished sixth in the Premier League.

“Three trophies in one season and the Champions League,” as Mourinho put it, in his “most difficult season as a manager” — quotes from the BBC:

“We totally deserved the win. I am so happy to see the boys with the crutches with the trophy and now I am on holiday. I don’t want to see any international friendlies, I am selfish. I can’t do it.

“For me, enough is enough. It has been a very hard last few months, we were short of numbers.

“Three trophies in one season and the Champions League. I am very happy in my most difficult season as a manager.”

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

As for his summer shopping list and Wayne Rooney‘s future at the club, well… Mourinho was much clearer about one than the other — quotes from the BBC:

“Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners. But I don’t care about football for now.

“Wayne Rooney was ready to play, he was a big option. But I didn’t need to attack at 2-0. I told him yesterday that he could be the key man but he can perfectly be here next season. He is a very important player for us. If he stays next season I’d be very happy.”