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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.

Lewandowski’s agent confirms talks with Bayern over new contract

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 21:  Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen in action during the international friendly match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Inter Milan of the Audi Football Summit 2015 at Shanghai Stadium on July 21, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Robert Lewandowski’s stellar season has seen the striker linked with all the top clubs in Europe, but he could be staying put at Bayern Munich.

The Bundesliga’s second-leading goalscorer has been tipped for big-money moves to Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain this year, but his agent Cezary Kucharski said “there is no need to change anything.”

[ MORE: Barca unbeaten in 28 ]

Speaking to Polish news outlet Polsat Sport, Kucharski said that he has started talking with Bayern about a contract extension and denied speaking with other clubs.

Yes, we’ve started talking [to Bayern]. I can confirm this.

I won’t talk about specifics, because it’s confidential. Real have not conducted talks over a transfer. It’s just speculation. Rumours around Robert show what a player he is. He’s known not only in Poland or Germany, but throughout Europe.

There are no talks with PSG. The English write about English clubs, the French about PSG, the Spaniards Real Madrid, and Juventus in Italy. In each country a great club is linked with Robert.

But Lewandowski is at a team that suits him, and there is no need to change anything. I know [Bayern chairman] Rummenigge is aware that Lewy is a great player, who has great value for Bayern, and how such a boy should be rewarded.

Lewandowski has scored 19 goals in 19 Bundesliga appearances this season for Bayern, as the German giants hold an eight-point lead at the top of the table. Overall, Lewandowski has scored 27 goals in 29 appearances in all competitions.

[ RELATED: Alexandre Pato eager to make his mark at Chelsea ]

In the midst of the best season of his career, the 27-year-old Polish international could move to any club and be the star player, where at Bayern he is just one of many stars. However, with the amount of success he is having at Munich, there is no reason to leave.

VIDEO: John Terry says he made it “very clear” he wanted to stay at Chelsea

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John Terry will leave Chelsea at the end of this season, although it may be against his will.

The Blues’ captain announced earlier this year that he would not be given a new contract and will move on after 18 years with the club.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Speaking after Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Sunday, Terry said he has had no communication with the club about the possibility of signing a new deal, although he made it “very clear” that he never intended on leaving.

The club is the most important thing.

There’s no communication between myself and the club at this minute. I said what I had to say, that’s how it was.

I made it very clear that I wanted to stay.

Chelsea has a policy of giving older players one-year contracts, and one would assume Terry could still help the club on the pitch for another season. However, with the captain saying there has been no communication about even the possibility of signing a new deal, it looks like he is being forced out.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Chelsea vs. Manchester United ]

With more than 700 appearances for Chelsea and one of the club’s iconic figures, it looks like the end of Terry’s run at Stamford Bridge could be a bit messy. Hopefully, the club can patch this situation so Terry gets the send-off he deserves.

VIDEO: Louis van Gaal destroys journalist for questioning his Manchester United future

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Louis Van Gaal isn’t happy about reports that Manchester United is speaking with Jose Mourinho.

He also isn’t happy about reporters asking about it. In fact, it makes him quite angry.

[ RELATED: Aging giants show familiar deficiencies in Stamford Bridge draw ]

The Dutchman went after a journalist following United’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea for asking a question about the potential of a managerial change. The journalist actually phrased his question more in the form of an olive branch, but Van Gaal still took exception.

[ RECAP: Overview of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea ]

Should the club actually be talking with a manager while still employing another, it would be quite controversial move. Van Gaal turned the situation on the journalist, asking if he could make up a story about the journalist being fired, and what he would tell his family.

Ailing giants showcase obvious deficiencies as Chelsea, Man United draw

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LONDON — Despite Jesse Lingard‘s stunning strike and Diego Costa’s dramatic stoppage time equalizer on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, the cracks could not be papered over fully during the 1-1 draw.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Both Chelsea and Manchester United have many deficiencies and are a long way from past glories. Both clubs are in a state of flux with future’s uncertain as rumors continue about Louis Van Gaal being replaced and Chelsea to welcome a new manager this summer.

Chelsea’s slide to mediocrity, as has been well documented, has been dramatic. The defending Premier League champions looked wary of springing too many attacks and their midfield creators were too eager to look back and sideways rather than take a chance. With Guus Hiddink in charge on an interim basis and the long-term direction of the club unclear, it’s easy to understand why Chelsea’s players seem unable to click into top gear. Since Jose Mourinho was fired in December they’ve gone 10 games unbeaten in all competitions but have drawn six of those.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Chelsea-United ]

As for United, they’ve come through a rough stretch of not scoring goals and despite letting three points slip late on Van Gaal will be heartened that his side created numerous chances. Anthony Martial looked unplayable at times. Lingard’s goal and overall play was hugely impressive and Wayne Rooney seemed to be in the groove, chipping over and having an acrobatic effort squirm just wide.

That said, the same deficiencies which have held back two giants of the Premier League all season surfaced once again.

Chelsea started slowly and were over-cautious in attack. They looked nervous in possession of the ball and United’s central midfield trio of Michael Carrick, Juan Mata and Maroune Fellaini overran Chelsea’s midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and John Obi Mikel. Chelsea finally equalized but slow build up play has been a regular theme of their season — with multiple demoralizing defeats during Mourinho’s final months in charge taking its toll — and United dealt with plenty of their attackers far too easily.

ProSoccerTalk asked Hiddink after the game if he felt his team was being too cautious.

“I think in the first part you have to say Manchester United stretched us out, they did well and they have good players. But when you have the reaction that is a little bit insecure to drop back then you are in trouble,” Hiddink said. “If one or two players drop back then you are in trouble. You have to do it collectively, which I don’t like, but I like when they go collectively forward which we tried to initiate a bit after a period. Then you see that go we go into the duels and we win it, then we got the chances from there.”

United’s main deficiency this season has been giving up costly goals at pivotal times. They simply don’t score enough to be able to leak goals as they have done in recent encounters. In three of their last five PL outings — a 3-3 draw with Newcastle, a 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton and the 1-1 draw with Chelsea — they’ve conceded late goals to cost them a total of five points.

Speaking to the media afterwards, Van Gaal knows that can’t continue if they’re going to finish in the top four.

“That’s why I am frustrated and my players are frustrated. When you are playing like we have played today and you are not making the gap smaller. You can say its misfortune but it’s not the first time that is overcoming us. For example Newcastle United scored in extra time. We have to do that better, improve in that way. I am happy with the performance. It was not a boring match so for the third time in the row it was sparkling. I hope to get the support of the media this week.”

There’s not much chance of that. Even if Van Gaal’s side showed more attacking intent, similar problems in defense stopped them from closing the gap on the top four as they’re now six points off fourth-placed Manchester City.

The main thing we learned from Stamford Bridge on Sunday was that two giants are treading water and their futures remain uncertain.