Much of the transfer talk at the start of the 2014/15 season surrounded Manchester United and, more specifically, exactly who they would sign in the centre of midfield. The biggest summer ‘transfer saga’ (there’s one every year – hello Wesley Sneijder) featured Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal, who’s stock had risen further after his performances for Chile in the World Cup. Elsewhere, Kevin Strootman, Paul Pogba, Nigel De Jong and William Carvalho were also regularly linked with a move to Old Trafford.
The general consensus amongst United fans was that this position had needed strengthening for some time – and with much justification. Paul Scholes had retired (again) at the same time as Sir Alex Ferguson, leaving much of the midfield burden resting on the shoulders of Michael Carrick. David Moyes brought in Marouane Fellaini at the start of the 2013/14 season, but the Belgian disappointed in his first campaign, along with the rest of the squad.
In the summer of 2014, United brought in Ander Herrera for £30 million, after a botched attempt to sign him the previous summer, and the Spaniard impressed during pre-season. With Michael Carrick injured and Darren Fletcher struggling to regain full fitness however, the issue of strengthening United’s midfield was raised once more after the stuttering start to their league campaign. Wayne Rooney’s inclusion as a central-midfielder a few weeks later was certainly not a popular one.
Daley Blind, also, brought in during the summer transfer window, was regularly used in United’s midfield at the expense of Herrera. Between October 20th and February 21st, Herrera started just one league match, a 2-1 win against Stoke.
During this period, Blind showed that he is more than capable of playing in United’s midfield. The Dutchman has made nineteen starts in the Premier League this year, predominantly in United’s midfield. He has two assists (though one of these was from left-back against Aston Villa) and has scored two crucial late equalisers against West Brom and West Ham, both away from Old Trafford. His pass completion rate is up around 89% showing exactly why Louis Van Gaal brought him in.
Arguably, United have shown their best form since Blind was shifted to left-back. Three wins from their last three matches, and eight goals in the process, have left United fans finally buying into Louis Van Gaal’s philosophy. United now look favourites to qualify for the Champions League, and a £100 million pound budget is reported to have been offered to strengthen further.
The question now seems to be whether or not a world class central midfielder is still a priority for Louis Van Gaal?
Herrera has shown that he can be a hugely important player for Manchester United, but it seems only after listening to Van Gaal’s meticulous instructions. Still just twenty-five years old, Herrera has scored five goals and contributed four assists in just twelve starts in the Premier League, and has an 89% pass completion rate. His link-up play with Juan Mata is, also, a vital part of United’s attack and the former Athletic Bilbao man has won the man of the match award three times.
Michael Carrick has, as well, left fans and critics purring with his recent displays after returning from injury. Carrick has two assists and one goal from his fifteen starts in the Premier League, with an 89.5% pass completion rate. The England international is United’s metronome, and despite his thirty-three years can continue at the top level for some time, mainly due to his supreme conditioning and style of play.
The aforementioned Daley Blind and rejuvenated Marouane Fellaini (albeit in the number ten position) provide other options in midfield, but in my opinion, now is the time to strengthen this department further, without the need to break the bank.
Premier League football is a squad game, now more than ever, and with Champions League football a distinct possibility next season, it’s vital that United don’t remain stagnant in the market. An injury to Carrick or Herrera could change United’s whole outlook, and subsequent success.
Van Gaal has shown with Herrera the time it can take for a player to respond to his ‘reconditioning’ process, so if he can remain fit, Kevin Strootman would be an improvement to United’s ranks without the need for such a transition.
It’s no secret that Van Gaal has huge admiration for Strootman, and vice versa; Van Gaal even reverted to his now famous 5-3-2 system with Holland after Strootman’s injury. That’s how influential the twenty-five year old can be. Strootman could be available for less than £20 million, though his fitness remains a concern.
Alternatively, Nigel De Jong and Sami Khedira are both available in the summer after running down their contracts at AC Milan and Real Madrid respectively. De Jong would only be a stop-gap due to his age, but Khedira has only just turned twenty-eight, and has proven his class at the highest level.
Paul Pogba seems to be the player that everybody is chasing, but the Juventus midfielder has said previously that he would never return to Old Trafford. An astronomical transfer fee could also be a stumbling block with the United hierarchy.
Whatever happens in summer, United’s midfield is looking in much better shape than it was at the same stage last season.
Hopefully for United fans, the ‘Wayne Rooney in midfield’ strategy will remain a distant memory.