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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.

EURO 2016: Who’s headed to France?

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - OCTOBER 10: Volkan Sen of Turkey in action during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group A Qualifier match between Czech Republic and Turkey at Letna Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
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The group stage of qualification is complete, as 20 teams have clinched a berth at EURO 2016, which kicks off next summer in France.

The top-two finishers in each group automatically qualified, as did the best third-place side out of all the groups (Turkey). France qualified automatically as the host nation.

[ MORE: EURO 2016 roundup ]

That leaves eight third-place teams to battle for the final four spots through a play-off. The draw for the matchups will take place on October 18, and those matches will be held from November 12-17 as a home-and-home play-off.

Group A

  1. Czech Republic
  2. Iceland
  3. Turkey (automatically qualified as best third-place side)

Group B

  1. Belgium
  2. Wales
  3. Bosnia and Herzegovina (qualified for play-off)

Group C

  1. Spain
  2. Slovakia
  3. Ukraine (qualified for play-off)

Group D

  1. Germany
  2. Poland
  3. Republic of Ireland (qualified for play-off)

Group E

  1. England
  2. Switzerland
  3. Slovenia (qualified for play-off)

Group F

  1. Northern Ireland
  2. Romania
  3. Hungary (qualified for play-off)

Group G

  1. Austria
  2. Russia
  3. Sweden (qualified for play-off)

Group H

  1. Italy
  2. Croatia
  3. Norway (qualified for play-off)

Group I

  1. Portugal
  2. Albania
  3. Denmark (qualified for play-off)

EURO 2016: Dutch disaster as Netherlands fail to qualify

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - OCTOBER 13:  Robin van Persie of the Netherlands (19) reacts during the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying Group A match between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic at Amsterdam Arena on October 13, 2015 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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The group stage of qualifying for the 2016 European Championship has come to a close, and one of the top teams in the world will not be playing in France next summer.

Netherlands 2-3 Czech Republic

The Netherlands finished second at the 2010 World Cup and third at the 2014 World Cup, but have failed to qualify for EURO 2016. Playing in front of a home crowd in a must-win match against the Czech Republic, the Dutch got off to a dreadful start, falling behind 2-0 as manager Danny Blind was forced to make a substitution within the opening 40 minutes. The Czech Republic was sent to ten men before the break, but an own-goal from Robin Van Persie made it 3-0 as the Dutch couldn’t recover. A disastrous result for the Netherlands, as big changes will surely come from the top down.

[ RELATED: David de Gea fighting for starting goalkeeper position with Spain ]

Italy 2-1 Norway

Italy finishes atop Group H without a loss after defeating Norway 2-1 today. Norway took the lead through Norwich City’s Alexander Tettey, but late goals from Alessandro Florenzi and Southampton’s Graziano Pelle gave the Italians all three points.

Malta 0-1 Croatia

With Norway’s loss, Croatia jumped into second place in Group H and secured qualification to EURO 2016 with a 1-0 win away at Malta. Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic scored the game’s only goal, as Croatia advances despite having one point deducted due to inappropriate actions from their fans.

Elsewhere in EURO qualifying

Group A

Turkey 1-0 Iceland
Latvia 0-1 Kazakhstan

Group B

Belgium 3-1 Israel
Wales 2-0 Andorra
Cyprus 2-3 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Group H

Bulgaria 2-0 Azerbaijan