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.

STREAM: CONCACAF tripleheader concludes with USMNT

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CONCACAF’s bottom three sides in the Hex standings look to make the table incredibly tight as World Cup qualifying finds three-straight matches on the docket beginning at 5 p.m. EDT.

Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Los Catrachos were creamed 6-0 by the U.S. on Friday, and return home hoping a wounded Costa Rica remains vulnerable. Honduras is dead last on goal differential, but three points would be huge and put them level with Los Ticos. Costa Rica won its first two matches before falling to Mexico on Friday.

Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico

El Tri has two wins and a draw from their first three Hex matches, and will be without Rafa Marquez on Tuesday. A win guarantees Mexico the top spot heading into the next round of matches in June. The Soca Warriors surprised some with their 1-0 win over visiting Panama on Tuesday. Mexico is a different class.

Panama vs. USMNT

Despite its miserable start, the U.S. can find itself as high as second with a win and help from Honduras. The injuries remain plenty for the Yanks, who are without Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget, and John Brooks. Panama has allowed just a single goal through three Hex matches, but also has only managed one.

AFC and Oceania wrap: Iran, New Zealand take next steps

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With CONMEBOL and CONCACAF serving as the main course later Tuesday, the morning and afternoon saw big World Cup qualifiers on the other side of the world.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

Asian qualifying

Iran is on the verge of qualification for Russia 2018 after Persepolis star Mehdi Taremi bagged his ninth international goal in a 1-0 home win over China.

Iran leads Group A by four points, but second-place South Korea and third-place Uzbekistan kept pace with 1-0 home wins of their own. Hong Jeong-ho scored in South Korea’s win over Syria, while Odil Ahmendov’s 65th minute free kick was enough to push Uzbekistan past Qatar.

The goalkeeping was… less than ideal.

Over in Group B, shutouts were the name of the game for high-powered hosts as well.

Japan stayed atop the group with a 4-0 win over Thailand, as a trio of players with Premier League experience — Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki — joined Gent’s Yuya Kubo on the scoreboard.

Saudi Arabia is level with Japan on points thanks to Yahya Al-Shehri’s post-halftime goal in a 1-0 win over Iraq, while Australia saw off United Arab Emirates thanks to goals from Burton Albion’s Jackson Irvine and Ingolstadt’s Mathew Leckie.

That leaves Australia three points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the race for two of three automatic spots. The Socceroos hosts the Green Falcons in June before an August trip to Saitama in a pair of matches which will decide who goes directly to Russia and who has to win a pair of playoffs: One against the Group A’s third-place team and another against CONCACAF’s fourth place side.

Oceania qualifying

New Zealand took the next step in collecting Oceania’s berth in the intercontinental playoff with a 2-0 win over Fiji in Wellington. PEC Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas bagged a brace for the All Whites.

New Zealand will next face either Tahiti, Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea over two legs in late August and early September for the right to battle the fifth place CONMEBOL team for a World Cup berth. That could be Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, or even Colombia.

Tahiti hosts Papua New Guinea at 1 a.m. EDT Wednesday, and will be the odds-on favorite to face New Zealand with a win.

After further tests, Lletget to miss 4-6 months

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So much for initial reports.

Less than 24 hours after the LA Galaxy announced that Sebastian Lletget had come through his injury on USMNT duty with no structural damage, a specialist found something worse.

Lletget has a Lisfranc injury and requires surgery, meaning the Galaxy and the U.S. will be without the midfielder for four to six months.

[ MORE: Spurs eager for U.S. return ]

Lletget, 24, spent a half-decade with West Ham but couldn’t break into the squad before returning to the U.S. last summer. He became a mainstay for the Galaxy, earning a call-up to the national team.

He scored his first USMNT goal on Friday to open the World Cup qualifier against Honduras, but was injured after a hard sliding tackle from Ever Alvarado.

Galaxy has depth beyond Lletget and Jermaine Jones, with Rafael Garcia, Joao Pedro, and Baggio Husidic able to fill a similar role, but this one stings for the Galaxy. Get well, Sebastian.

Scouting report: Everton target Orlando’s Cyle Larin

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Reports have been suggesting the Orlando City’s star striker Cyle Larin is attracting some serious interest from Premier League side Everton.

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Larin, 21, has started the MLS season off in red-hot form and the report suggests the Toffees have bid $4 million for his talents. They’ll likely have to up that offer for the Canadian national team star.

What is Larin all about?

With Romelu Lukaku seeming to be heading towards the exit door this summer as his contract saga rumbles on, it’s not outlandish to state that Larin has a very similar style to the prolific Belgian international. Of course, he has yet to test himself in the PL and Lukaku’s boots would be a big pair to fill if Larin did arrive at Goodison Park as some kind of replacement in the coming months, yet when you watch Larin play there are so many similarities between the pair.

Ronald Koeman is always eager to give youth a chance and with Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all getting regular minutes this season, so Larin would get chances to impress if he ended up on Merseyside.

Here are some key stats Toffees fans will want to know too:

  • 17 – Number of goals Larin scored in his debut MLS season, the most-ever by a Rookie
  • Larin has scored all three of Orlando’s goals so far in the 2017 MLS season
  • He has scored 39 goals in 68 appearances for Orlando since arriving in 2015
  • For Canada, he has five goals in 19 appearances after making his debut as a teenager
  • Larin became the first-ever Canadian to be selected as the first overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft when he joined Orlando in 2015

Click play on the video above to see Larin’s best moments so far in MLS, as he continues his impressive development.