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.

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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.

Wenger’s fiery response to Deeny comments: “You can’t question our character”

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Arsene Wenger was none too pleased at Troy Deeney‘s comments question whether Arsenal had the “cajones” to compete at the top of the Premier League.

The Arsenal boss blasted back at the Watford striker, telling reporters “you can’t question our character.”

Speaking at his pre-match press conference ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League match at Red Star Belgrade, Wenger launched into an attack of his own. “People try and put us down, they always have. Those comments aren’t justified. Everyone is entitled to talk. We don’t listen to what people say – we try to analyze or own game. I love my players and I trust their strength of character to respond quickly. I know who my players really are.”

[ MORE: Everton boss Koeman cracks joke, “Maybe I am in the crisis” ]

When asked if Deeney’s comments hurt, Wenger replied, “Yes but I know who my players really are. In the last seven games we had six wins and one draw. ‘Comments are part of the modern game. I love my players and I trust their strength of character to respond.”

The Frenchman was responding to comments by Deeney following Watford’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal. The 29-year-old was told that Wenger disagreed with the penalty that allowed the Hornets to draw level, and he responded by saying, “There’s a reason they lost and is wasn’t because of one penalty. I have to watch what I say but… having a bit of cojones, I think the word is. Having a bit of nuts. ‘Whenever I play Arsenal and this is just personal, I go up and I think let me whack the first one, let’s see who wants it. ‘I came on today, I jumped up with [Per] Mertesacker, didn’t even have to jump actually, nod it down, the crowd gets up, and they all just backed off.’

As Everton struggles continue, Koeman jests: “Maybe I’m in the crisis”

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Ronald Koeman may be joking, but Everton’s table position does not appear to be humorous.

The Dutch boss, under fire for the Toffees poor start to the season that sees them in 16th through the first eight matches of the season, has done little to endear himself to Everton fans. His latest stunt won’t help his cause.

Koeman, hoping to make light of his dire situation, joked at Everton’s pre-match press conference ahead of their Europa League match against Lyon on Thursday. When asked if he is four matches away from a crisis, Koeman answered, “Maybe I’m in the crisis.”

The comment came with a wry smile and a chuckle, clearly making light of the situation. However, the words were far more ominous. The question made reference to comments former Leicester City boss Craig Shakespeare made just a day before his recent sacking, saying “It’s the reality, we all understand that you can draw four games on the trot and the spin becomes that you haven’t won for four games.” He was fired the next day.

Koeman was pressed on his job status further, and he responded with a more level-headed answer. “Everybody knows in football the manager’s job is a really difficult job because things change really fast,” Koeman said Wednesday. “Most of the time, the manager doesn’t get time to improve the team.”

The Dutchman confirmed he met with Everton majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri on Friday while his boss was in town, and that he received their backing verbally. “We spoke about football,” Koeman said. “There was not really a message but the feeling is that they (the board) are behind the team, they are behind the manager. Everybody knows in football that’s a nice thing but in football always, finally, it’s all about results. Until now it’s full, total support from the board, yes.”

Not only does Everton rest just two points above the relegation zone, but they also sit bottom of their Europa League group with a single point through two matches.

Man City’s Ederson: “I was born to play with my feet”

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MANCHESTER — The gray skies over the City Football Academy would have produced a grimace from most, but a towering Brazilian goalkeeper was smiling from ear to ear.

Ederson Santana de Moraes strode into the room with a wink and a smile to imitate the smiley face emoji tattooed just behind his left ear.

The boy from Sao Paulo feels at home in Manchester after his $46 million move from Benfica in the summer (which made him the most expensive goalkeeper on the planet) and just over a week since he made his debut for the Brazilian national team he is being lauded by fans and pundits across the world.

Siting back in his chair as he looked out at the dour Manchester sky and the meeting room lights glistened off the braces on his teeth, the 24-year-old is a long way from Lisbon or Sao Paulo.

“It has been a really positive experience so far,” Ederson said, via a translator. “Obviously the cities are a little different. Lisbon is more tropical, here it is more cold and rainy. But I am settled in well, I like life here and I am ready and prepare for any circumstances. I am settling in here very well.”

Ederson played the hero for Man City less than 24 hours earlier as he saved a penalty kick in their hugely important UEFA Champions League win against Napoli. Today he was back at the training ground and was taking part in a SkillsCity app challenge in conjunction with the club launching its first-ever US SkillCity final this December in California.

The competition (presented by Nexen) is open until November 19 for young players aged 5-14 across the U.S. who can submit their best skills, following guidance from City’s coaches, via the app ahead of the final in California where eight winners will be announced from 32 players selected from across the USA. It’s a novel idea and the prize will be a VIP trip to Manchester in 2018 to see a game, stay at the CFA and more.

“I remember when I was a kid I couldn’t watch much on TV because the games were not on,” Ederson explained. “Having these kind of apps these days help a lot to develop skills and help the kids to practice, to improve and test their skills. It is really positive.”

Ederson’s skills have certainly been positive since he arrived at City as the Brazilian has been hailed as the missing piece of the jigsaw in Guardiola’s side.

His composure with the ball at his feet and ability to come charging out of his goal has provided plenty of confidence to City’s defense.

“I was born with those skills, being able to play with my feet. When I started playing as a player I was playing as a defender or a full back. That helped me with my adaptation to play with my feet. Through time I have developed those skills and even now I keep training with my feet because it is very important,” Ederson said. “In the past maybe I didn’t spend so much time training with the players that were in front of me. Now we are more involved and maybe that is why I can now show my qualities with the football.”

Ederson’s confidence in coming off his line saw him injured in City’s 5-0 win against Liverpool earlier this season as he was clattered by Sadio Mane and suffered a deep gash on his face which required several stitches.

That resulted in Mane being sent off and Ederson being carried off but his quick recovery impressed City’s fans and enhanced his growing reputation as a steely competitor who is a formidable last line of defense.

“It has been a good start for me here at City. It has been a very positive experience for me so far and the fans help me a lot and their support is very important for me. What happened in the Liverpool game with Sadio Mane, those things can happen in football,” Ederson said. “I got injured and I could have continued playing but the cut was quite big so they wouldn’t let me continue.”

Ederson’s speedy recovery saw him play a few days later at Feyenoord and the improvement in City’s defense has been stark since his arrival with just four goals conceded in eight games in the PL so far.

“I think I am a calm goalkeeper and a calm person as well and I try to give calm to my teammates,” Ederson said. “I help a lot in the build up and the long balls as well. But mainly I would say a goalkeeper must be a calm person to cope with the pressure to handle when you make a mistake. I think that’s really important and it helps you a lot to develop your skills.

“I think modern football has evolved a lot. Goalkeepers do several things during the game. They help in the build up. That is very important, to play with your feet, it is very important to know how to read the game and obviously save balls and also handle the pressure when it comes to the crunch time.”

Where does Ederson’s extreme ability and composure with the ball at his feet come from?

Look no further than the club where he came through the ranks and who he supported as a kid, Sao Paulo, to find his idol.

“Rogerio Ceni who played for Sao Paulo. He was my idol. He was the guy I looked up to and he played for the same club, Sao Paulo, for 25 years. He won a lot of trophies and had a lot of chances to leave the club but he stayed there. He became the main idol of the club. All the skills I have now, I would say that’s because I saw him,” Ederson smiled. “He played well with his feet and was good in the build up and he was even a goalscorer with penalty kicks and free kicks. He made history at the club and he was my main idol.”

A revelation with his feet in the Premier League so far, will Ederson, like his hero, be coming up to take penalties and free kicks anytime soon?

“No free kicks… but if there is a chance to ever take a penalty I am going to ask the manager and I would do it!” Ederson laughs.

Pointing to the tattoos all over his body and explaining their significance, including a passage from the bible on the back of his left calf and other markings to honor his family, it is easy to forgot how far Ederson has come in such a short space of time.

He moved to Benfica from Brazil as a 16-year-old and then dropped down to the third division with Ribeirao on loan before moving to Rio Ave where he made his name playing regularly, before heading back to Benfica and taking his chance after an injury to the regular starter.

Discussing his hometown of Osasco, Ederson revealed he has no plans to return to Brazil when his playing days are over.

“I left my hometown very early. I cannot remember much. I have friends and family there so when I have holidays I try to go there to my home village. It is very calm but because I left very early I don’t miss it that much,” Ederson said. “To be honest, I am not planning to go back and live there when I retire. The plan is to stay here in Europe with my family because it is calm and safer so in my future, my family and I are thinking about when I retire we will move to Portugal because of the language and the lifestyle.”

When asked what he and his teammates can achieve this season after winning seven of their opening eight PL matches and all three of their UEFA Champions League group games, Ederson is confident Pep Guardiola has built a side who can dominate now and for many years to come.

“I think Man City has built a really great team, a really young team both for the present and the future. I think we are ready to fight for everything,” Ederson said.” The Premier League, the cups, the Champions League. If we keep doing the good work we are doing, we will have a lot of chances to win one, two or three trophies. We must keep working hard and focus on the targets.”

Ederson achieved one of his long-term targets last week by making his first start for Brazil in their World Cup qualifying win against Chile.

He is dreaming of being on the Selecao’s plane to Russia next summer.

“I was very happy to play my first game with Brazil and also that it was in my city, Sao Paulo, with my family watching at the stadium. We won and we got a clean sheet, so it was perfect,” Ederson smiled. “I’m following this path towards looking at the World Cup on the horizon and I would be very happy if I was chosen in the final list. But we have to wait because the season is long but it would be a dream come true to play in the World Cup because I have been working so hard in the last years to be able to be there.”

“My Brazilian teammates [Gabriel Jesus, Danilo, Fernandinho] helped me a lot here to adapt and settle in. I knew them before from the national team, so obviously they make my life easier here.”

Ederson’s confident and commanding displays are making City’s chances of winning it all a lot easier this season.

Pep seems to have finally found the playmaking goalkeeper he has craved since he arrived in Manchester.

Cavani on Neymar: “We do not need to be friends”

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Paris Saint-Germain has been rocked by rumblings of locker room discontent ever since Edinson Cavani and Neymar were involved in an on-field spat regarding who would take a penalty in a 2-0 win against Lyon.

The two have done their best to quiet the noise, but the populous understandably continues to dissect their words piece by piece. Ahead of their Champions League game against Anderlecht in Group B play on Wednesday, Cavani was again asked about the situation, and again put his best foot forward to dispel any internal issues, but may have only ignited them further.

“The penalty business, it is in the past,” Cavani told reporters in the pre-game press conference. “These things happen in football. The important thing now is to find a solution together and to operate as a team. Ultimately, this is what enables you to achieve great things.”

“We need to be a competitive team, we do not need to all be friends or like a family. The most important thing is that everybody is professional on the pitch and gives 100 percent. Outside of that, everybody has their own life, their own way of being and their own way of thinking.”

Players talk all the time about being a “family” or being close-knit, but here Cavani attempts to ease any fears of locker room discontent by proclaiming the team is anything but family or friends. An interesting choice of words for sure.

In other interviews, Cavani has claimed the penalty business was resolved in-house, and that it will stay in-house.