For the past one hundred summers (or thereabouts), the transfer window for United fans has played out like a clever analogy for unparalleled frustration; with nothing remotely central-midfieldy to celebrate. But for a club who supposedly don’t have, haven’t had, or even seemingly got all that close to buying, any one of the best central midfielders around for a hell of a long time (or perhaps more specifically since Roy Keane was shoved onto his own sword mid-fall), United have, have had, and have bought their fair share of the best central midfielders around.
Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Darren Fletcher and Anderson (and Tom Cleverley (though still a work in progress), Paul Pogba (though let’s not go there) and an ageing Paul Scholes (though no need to go there)), could all – under test conditions, with all things being considered and equal – be seriously considered some of the best midfielders around over the past few years. They are all also, as good as, if not better footballers, than Roy Keane was. Now, no doubt the subjective opinions of United fans (and other fans) on all of those players varies dramatically; just because we’re from the same star stuff doesn’t mean we’re on the same planet, but for the purposes of this post, purse those cuss-laden lips, step away from the ‘Leave a Reply’ button (you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to) and just go with it for a minute…
I make the pointed comment about those players being better footballers than Roy Keane with no agenda, it’s what I think and so I wrote it down. That’s not to say I think any of those players make for better central midfielders. Roy Keane is rightly afforded his status within United’s recent successful history. He was, without a doubt, a more effective force than any of the players listed and possibly – it could be argued – than any other player you may choose to list amongst his peers. I’d also like to add that I’m in no way suggesting that Roy Keane wasn’t a very good footballer, it’s more that, that alone wasn’t what made him Roy Keane; it was the something Other. The indefinable Other – an intensity created by an individual’s attitude and their application of it – that can separate the very best players, from those that are just a little bit better.
Since Roy Keane was hustled off the mic, things – at United, but also things in a broader football sense – have changed. The accepted aesthetic of the midfield has evolved, and the rise to prominence of the likes of Michael Carrick emphasises a part of this. We’re just about wholesale on-board with Michael Carrick at United: a player who had previously fallen short of fans expectations on account of being predisposed to avoid irrational (or intentional) violent acts, for the greater good. That, and not having the genetic coding necessary for a low centre of gravity, therefore being slightly easier to shove off the ball than those less sharply inclined. He instead prefers to concentrate his efforts on other matters, like ball retention, passing, and that – the stuff that wins wars, but not necessarily every battle. But you don’t need me to tell you about Michael Carrick. He’s now generally regarded as a successful and integral part of United’s central midfield, and rightly so, because he is. But, as good as he his, I personally don’t think he has enough of that Otherness. You could (and should) be happy with having a central midfield formed from two players of Michael Carrick’s standing, it would without doubt succeed, but it wouldn’t have that edge and I think it’s that what us greedy United fans are after.
I think you’d be hard pushed to form a sensible sentence that argued that Owen Hargreaves wasn’t the best central midfielder United could have signed when they did. He was an answer; probably THE answer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, and alongside Anderson – in his own perpetual state of ill-health – and latterly Fletcher, spent more than enough time staring longingly from the window of the medical centre. Three of our best midfield options out of commission. Hargreaves was upset with the level of treatment provided by the club’s medical staff, suggesting they don’t have the players’ best interests at heart, but this is from a man who collected the Premier League trophy with Manchester City wearing sports sandals over football socks, and so can’t be trusted. There are other, more sane, theories as to why we haven’t shaken free of our midfield malaise: lack of money (or lack of real intent to invest in the team) probably being the theory of choice, but personally I choose to believe it’s been something else.
I genuinely believe, both Darren Fletcher and Anderson not only have bucket loads of the ability necessary, but also of their own brand of that Otherness to be up there with the best – and I think Fergie believed that too. His affection for the pair of them was never more apparent than on his final day at Old Trafford and I think it was his faith in them, his loyalty and regard, that fed a reluctance to seriously pursue and invest in a proper central midfielder. It was a gamble of sorts that never paid off while he was manager. It’s now up to David Moyes.
Before I finish up, think of all the central midfielders United have allegedly lusted after during these summers of malcontent, how have their careers turned out since? Off the top of my Google search: Nasri, Schneider, Rodwell, Modric, Wanyama, Mikel, Dembele, Tiote, Strootman, Hazard and Moura (you can add your own and play along at home) have hardly blazed a trail since having the temerity to resist OUR supposed overtures. Two of those listed I hadn’t even heard of before we bid on them and I still haven’t haven’t heard of them to this day. That’s not to say they wouldn’t have been the appropriate square peg to shove into our inappropriately empty, round hole, but I think it’s important to remember the things you didn’t get that you didn’t really want – it’s more positive; more healthy.
I’m not sure what we want, or whether it even exists and if it does whether it’s available, or if we can afford it if it were, or even if it would want to come to us and if it did come to us that it would be okay with the move – you know would it settle in and that – or if it would be more interested in the money, and if so, as long as it did, well would I be happy with that? Or whether we’d be able to keep it fit and healthy (that one’s for you Hargo) and nurture it’s talent, or if we’ve already got it and it just needs to stay fit … but I do know I want it really bad and it’s not okay that’s it’s just A. N. Other very good midfielder, it has to have that something Other.