Replacing Paul Scholes: Manchester United’s long-held weakness sending Red Devils to new depths

Leave a comment

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.

WATCH: Hartford Athletic scores wild 90th-minute winner

Hartford Athletic goal
Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

It’s very rare in this age full of soccer on our screens that we catch a goal of unique ingenuity.

The USL Championship delivered the goods on Wednesday.

Hartford Athletic had blown a two-goal lead to Philadelphia Union II on Wednesday and was staring down a 2-2 draw when Danny Barrera swung into action.

[ REPORT: Spurs land Mourinho’s “top target” ]

Well, perhaps he lunged into action. Or flailed. On third thought, swung is good.

Heck, you pick the verb.

Barrera, 30, turned Philadelphia goalkeeper Mitchell Budler into a gift horse, reacting quickly to flick his back boot into the path of the keeper’s attempted outlet throw in the 90th minute.

The 81st-minute sub became the match-winning goalscorer off the play, which gives him two goals and seven assists on the season.

Hartford has 32 points and is a point off table-leading Tampa Bay Rowdies with one match to play. Second-place Louisville City is also on 32 points and Pittsburgh Riverhounds have 31.

Hartford may be able to look back at Barrera’s goal as the surprise three points that swung a title race in its favor.

Leeds – Manchester City: How to watch, start time, prediction, odds

Leeds - Manchester City
Credit: LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Leeds – Manchester City: It’s been so far, so good for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds in their return to the Premier League, but a visit from Man City to Elland Road is a stiffer test (Watch live at 12:30 pm ET Saturday on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Leeds fell 4-3 to Liverpool on Opening Day but has since beaten Fulham and Sheffield United to sit top half of the table in this very young Premier League season.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Man City fell 5-2 to Leicester City at home last weekend after beating Wolves to start their PL season. A midweek clean sheet of Burnley shows that Pep Guardiola’s men aren’t dead, and the Catalan mastermind will relish the chance to match wits with a man he hails as a role model in Bielsa.

Guardiola once called Bielsa the best manager in the world.

“Winning titles helps to have a job next season but at the end of your life, what you remember is not the titles you have won, what you remember is the memories you have and whether the manager taught you a lot,” Guardiola once said when asked about Bielsa. “What we remember are the experiences and the memories, the players you have had, the managers you have had. Marcelo is at the top of the list. Absolutely at the top of the list.”


Team news for Leeds – Manchester City (INJURY REPORT)

Leeds will not have emerging star winger Jack Harrison, who is in his second season on loan to the club from Man City and ineligible to play against his parent club. Gaetano Berardi (knee), Adam Forshaw (groin), Pablo Hernandez (groin) are on the injured list.

Things are getting better for Manchester City, who got Aymeric Laporte and Bernardo Silva back in a midweek League Cup win over Burnley. Still out are Gabriel Jesus (undisclosed), Sergio Aguero (knee), Joao Cancelo (foot), Ilkay Gundogan (COVID-19), and Oleksandr Zinchenko (undisclosed).


What they’re saying

Leeds’ young goalkeeper Illan Meslier on keeping a clean sheet: “I’m happy because in the last game against Fulham I felt I could have saved the last two goals, but against Sheffield I saved two important chances and we arrived at half time at 0-0 which was important. It is just one game though, and we are focused on the next game now and then the one after that. For the spectators I think 4-3 games are better, but for the team and me it is better one-nil. We managed to do that on Sunday and win the game so it is all good.”

Man City boss Guardiola on new signing Ruben Dias: “We know Ruben Dias’s personality and I am sure he will be an incredible player for the next six or seven years. We’re very happy to have him. Our back four are now a young team. We start training tomorrow and get going as quick as possible.”


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

This line has probably become a lot tighter than it would’ve been in August since Leeds has burst onto the scene while Man City has been up-and-down (relatively speaking). Leeds is +675 to win at home and +440 to draw, while City is -290 to collect all three points.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links


Leeds – Manchester City prediction

Leeds is a talented side and only getting better and deeper in terms of talent and experience. And Bielsa can plan for any opposition. But injured or not, City still has Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Raheem Sterling, and more. Man City 3-1.


How to watch Leeds – Manchester City stream and start time

Kickoff: 12:30 pm ET Saturday
TV Channel: NBC
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Manchester United – Tottenham: How to watch, start time, prediction, odds

Leave a comment

Manchester United – Tottenham: Jose Mourinho’s latest Premier League project waltzes into his previous stop when Tottenham Hotspur visits Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday (Watch live at 11:30 am ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Both clubs boast midweek wins in the League Cup, though Tottenham’s Thursday visit from Europa League foes Maccabi Haifa have complicated Mourinho’s planning for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Tottenham may have a new striker in the fold, with reports claiming the North Londoners have loaned Mourinho’s No. 1 target, Carlos Vinicius, from Benfica.

Meanwhile, Solskjaer has grown frustrated of answering questions on United’s transfer activity with days to go in the window.


Team news for Manchester United – Tottenham (INJURY REPORT)

Same old, same old for United, which is still dealing with long-term injuries to Axel Tuanzebe (ankle) and Phil Jones (knee).

Tottenham is still waiting for Gareth Bale to regain full fitness after a knee injury, while Heung-min Son is unlikely to play Sunday but manager Jose Mourinho was unwilling to completely rule the South Korean out.


What they’re saying

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Man Utd’s transfer activity“I can’t give you any news. We are working with what we have got. We have a big squad. If there is any update, we will let you know. I don’t comment on other teams’ players. I can’t concern myself with other clubs. I know the club is working well and hard to have a strong squad as possible. Sometimes speculation is there and we can’t control that.”

Spurs’ boss Mourinho on midweek League Cup win over Chelsea“We were ready to fight, I told you. I told the players before the penalties that they were magnificent in the second half, we made Chelsea look ordinary. The team waited for the right moment…. I have to think about three games at the same time but the players only thought about this game, they were phenomenal. Phenomenal.”


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

Man United is -108 to win while visiting Spurs register a +290 odds to get all three points against Jose Mourinho’s former club. A draw nets the bettor +260.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links


Manchester United – Tottenham prediction

Tottenham’s looked the superior team in all competitions so far, though United’s stars have yet to really fire on all cylinders aside from Bruno Fernandes. The variables for this weekend, however, favor United. Spurs will have played Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday while United played Saturday-Tuesday. If Old Trafford was full of screaming fans we might expect a little more advantage for a home side, too. Son’s absence looms large, though, and that will tilt the scales from a 2-2 draw to a 2-1 Man United win.


How to watch Manchester United – Tottenham stream and start time

Kickoff: 11:30 am ET Sunday
TV Channel: NBCSN
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Report: Tottenham lands Mourinho’s No. 1 striker target from Benfica

Carlos Vinicius to Tottenham
Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images
Leave a comment

If Gareth Bale doesn’t have “it” anymore, then Jose Mourinho’s gonna have other options.

Heck, even if he does.

Tottenham will soon announce the signing of Benfica striker Carlos Vinicius on a one-year loan and $50 million-plus option-to-buy after the season.

[ MORE: Champions League draw preview ]

Not to be confused with Real Madrid star Vinicius Junior, Carlos Vinicius is a 25-year-old Brazilian striker coming off a career-year in Portugal.

Vinicius scored 23 times with 13 assists in a breakout 2019-20 season, his 18 league goals tied for the Portuguese top flight lead with teammate Pizzi and Rio Ave’s Mehdi Taremi.

He’s also comfortable coming off the bench, scoring those six of his 18 league goals in substitute performances.

[ MORE: Mourinho on League Cup defeat of Chelsea ]

Football.London reporter Alasdair Gold says Vinicius was Jose Mourinho’s No. 1 summer target but the price tag was too high earlier in the window.

Vinicius used to belong to Napoli but twice went out on loan, one of those a 16-appearance, 2-goal campaign for Monaco in Ligue 1.

The player shares an agency with Cristiano Ronaldo, Ederson, Ruben Neves, Ruben Dias, and Matt Doherty.