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.

Petkovic: Time to “take Switzerland seriously” after Brazil draw

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While much of the talk about Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Brazil and Switzerland will focus on the former, the Swiss would like their share of credit for frustrating — and matching — one of a handful of favorites to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic is chief among those who believe it’s time those on the outside “start taking notice of us and taking us seriously.” As for the insinuations that his side roughed up Neymar, who suffered 10 of the 19 fouls committed by Switzerland, most of them were “very clean” — quotes from the BBC:

“Sometimes if there is a lack of recognition that is a pity because we have played very well. We showed and demonstrated that this team always believes in itself and can achieve results.

“Most of the duels (with Neymar) were won in a very clean way. It was one of the key ingredients to neutralize Neymar.”

“I’m very proud and pleased with the discipline with the way we played. We worked collectively and cohesively.”

“When we are able to play forward and press higher up we were able to do it well and it is an excellent starting position for the rest of our group matches.

“We had real difficulties in the first 40 minutes, I said ‘let’s remain calm, focused and believe in ourselves, push up higher up the pitch and create opportunities to score.'”

Having secured a point in far and away their toughest group game, Switzerland now have eminently winnable games against Serbia (Friday) and Costa Rica (Wednesday, June 27) remaining. Four points from those two games would just about guarantee progression to the knockout rounds.

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 2

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Layla Anna-Lee has a new show and, well, it’s unbiased. At least occasionally…

In the second episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, Layla Anna-Lee looks at the best moments from the first set of matches in the 2018 World Cup.

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There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.

Brazil waste Coutinho’s stunner, draw Switzerland in opener

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Brazil started brilliantly and raced out to an early lead, but the five-time World Cup winners — and one of a handful of favorites in 2018 — disappointed in the end as they settled for a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in the two sides’ Group E opener.

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Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring after 20 minutes, turning home a stunning strike from distance, off the inside of the post, to settle any early nerves and give Tite’s Selecao a 1-0 lead (WATCH HERE).

It wasn’t Brazil’s first golden scoring chance of the game, though, as Coutinho and Neymar combined down the left wing to send the latter into space inside the penalty area. Neymar played a first-time cross into the six-yard box, but Paulinho‘s scuffed effort from close range was tipped around the post by Yann Sommer.

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A bit of complacency and real lack of urgency washed over Brazil as soon as they went ahead, affording Switzerland every opportunity to get back in the game.

Vladimir Petkovic’s side needed just five second-half minutes to draw level, thanks to some shoddy set-piece defending by Brazil. Steven Zuber took up a spot at the near post, virtually unmarked inside the six-yard box, and headed past Alisson.

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The game’s most controversial moment came just after the 70-minute mark, when Gabriel Jesus was bear-hugged inside the penalty area. Wrapped up from behind, the Manchester City forward was blatantly prevented from getting to the ball after a quick passage of smooth build-up, but referee Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos was unmoved and no video review was enacted.

By the full-time whistle, Brazil had piled up 21 shots (just four on target) compared to just six from Switzerland (two). Despite on-target efforts from Neymar and Renato Augusto inside the game’s final five minutes, a winner wasn’t on the cards and the sides were forced to split the points.

Up next for Brazil is a clash with Costa Rica on Friday, while Switzerland will face Serbia the same day. The Serbs topped the Costa Ricans in Sunday’s first game, putting them top of the group after after the first of three rounds in Group E.

Video: Coutinho’s curler has Brazil flying early

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It took 20 minutes for the Selecao to get on the board, but Brazil looks every bit as good as advertised.

Tite’s side struck nearly halfway through the opening stanza when Barcelona star Philippe Coutinho curled his shot from distance off the inside of the post against Switzerland.

The Brazilians came close on several occasions prior to Coutinho’s opener, but the 26-year-old made good on the misses with his first career World Cup tally.