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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.

Alexis Sanchez leaves Arsenal match with apparent right hamstring injury

NORWICH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  An injured Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (17) is given assistance during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Arsenal at Carrow Road on November 29, 2015 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Alexis Sanchez has joined Arsenal’s long list of walking wounded.

The Chilean subbed off after 60 minutes at Carrow Road after suffering what appeared to be a right hamstring injury.

[ WATCH: Petulant Costa tosses bib at Mourinho ]

Arsene Wenger has been critical of the use of his players on international duty when not at 100 percent, but that didn’t stop him from using Alexis on a hamstring injury.

Alexis was headed for a loose ball when he tried to leap over a defender and instead pulled up with the injury.

Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup: Vardy to Chelsea, Man City; Real wants Neymar

BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 24:  Neymar of FC Barcelona controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between FC Barcelona and AS Roma at Camp Nou stadium on November 24, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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Neymar is playing as well as any player in the world, so it makes sense that anyone would be interested in signing the player were it a possibility, but would the Barcelona star considering swapping shirts with his current club’s biggest rival? Florentino Perez wants to woo the Brazilian to the Bernabeu, according to AS, though it’s an absolute head-scratcher as to why — aside from Perez’s wild ego — this move could go down.

Jamie Vardy could leave Leicester City, says the Independent. The thought here is that the Foxes couldn’t refuse a $45 million offer from a giant like Chelsea or Manchester City. Straight swap for Diego Costa (We kid, we kid; How would the mercurial striker possibly live with Tony Pulis?).

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Costa tosses bib at Mourinho | Jose reacts ]

Burnley defender Michael Keane continues to impress as the Clarets aim for a Premier League return, and The Sun says Aston Villa is joining Manchester United and Everton with interest in the 22-year-old back.

The same publication says Everton back John Stones is taking Spanish lessons in preparation for a move to Barcelona (although many people speak Spanish in soccer, of course). The Sunday Mirror says Arsenal could also move for Stones.

Sky Italia says Leicester’s Andrej Kramaric is looking toward, essentially, all the big names in Serie A. AC Milan and Juventus are among the clubs mentioned by the report.

Jack Butland is having a strong season for Stoke, and the young English keeper is wanted by both of the Merseyside’s Premier League clubs, according to The Sun. The price? $30 million.

West Ham United 1-1 West Bromwich Albion: Baggies come back to hold Irons

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  James McClean of West Bromwich Albion is tackled by Carl Jenkinson of West Ham United during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion at Boleyn Ground on November 29, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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A Winston Reid own goal undid a gorgeous Mauro Zarate free kick, as West Ham failed to take all three points from West Brom in a 1-1 draw at the Boleyn Ground on Sunday

The draw moves West Ham into 7th place, while West Brom stays 13th.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

West Brom had a good-looking buildup in the ninth minute, as Manuel Lanzini came close to meandering through a packed West Brom back line before passing to Mauro Zarate, who missed wide of the goal.

At the other end, Salomon Rondon smoked a fine effort just wide of Adrian’s far post.

The Hammers broke through off an 18th-minute set piece, as Zarate curled a free kick over the wall and into the upper 90.

Lanzini then stole the ball from Yacob and darted to the top of the arc, where he unleashed a whirling shot that Boaz Myhill was able to save.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Click here for full lineups, stats, box score ]  

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29: Tony Pulis manager of West Bromwich Albion reacts as Slaven Bilic manager of West Ham United looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion at Boleyn Ground on November 29, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
(Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Despite dominating the first half, West Ham soon found itself level when West Brom substitute Rickie Lambert struck a ball that changed course off Winston Reid’s arm to beat Myhill. 1-1. Game on.

Lambert later forced Adrian to push a low free kick out for a corner, but the Baggies found the ensuing chance cleared away from danger.

In the 61st minute, Adrian was called upon to make a strong save on Rondon’s powerful close-range header.

A break toward the other end saw Victor Moses cue up Diafra Sakho, but Jonas Olsson slid to block the West Ham chance out for a corner.

Pochettino trolling? “You got the feeling that Chelsea were a small team”

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LONDON — Tottenham Hotspur huffed and puffed at White Hart Lane on Sunday but never really got going as they settled for a point at White Hart Lane.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Harry Kane forced Asmir Begovic into two good saves in the first half and Song Hueng-min should’ve scored in the second half with a header but even after after a grueling 5,000-mile round trip to Azerbaijan on Thursday night for Europa League action which saw them arrive back in England at 6 a.m. local time Friday, manager Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t pleased his team didn’t win to move into the top four.

“No, not really happy. We deserved more than we got, so I was disappointed, but it’s true that I’m proud of the players. For me they’re big heroes,” Pochettino told ProSoccerTalk. “The effort was massive. Chelsea played one of their best games of the season, and when you make the effort we showed and the maturity, you have to be happy with your players but disappointed with one point.”

[ MORE: Mourinho calls benched Costa “privileged” ]

With Spurs now stretching their unbeaten run to 13 games this season — their one and only defeat in 2015-16 came on the opening day of the season, 1-0 at Manchester United — Pochettino was asked if his side, who sit five points off the top, should be pleased that a draw against Chelsea felt like two points dropped.

The Argentine coach then released his inner Jose Mourinho — the pair have a close relationship and before Poch came to coach in England he spoke at length to Mourinho — dishing out a backhanded compliment to the master of the backhanded compliment.

“This is a good thing. We play the champions. It’s good. You got the feeling that Chelsea were a small team and Tottenham can win every game we play,” Pochettino said. “It’s very difficult, though. Not easy. We’re the youngest team in the PL and the maturity we showed today we have shown in different games. We have to feel happy. It’s a good thing that, maybe, we are a bigger club than Chelsea or that we deserve more. We showed good performances in the last few games, and I’m happy, but we have to keep working hard. We’ve only had 14 games in the PL and it’s too early to think about the end of the season.”

Whether or not those comments were lost in translation from a man who is still getting used to English as his second language, Pochettino clearly felt Spurs deserved more than the point they got and it’s apparent from the differing predicaments both teams find themselves in that Spurs have more chance of winning the title and finishing in the top four than Chelsea this season.