Manchester United position preview: central midfield

The ageless Ryan Giggs was still tearing Europe apart last season from the center of the park.

During Manchester United's run to the title and UEFA Champions League final last season, there was one area of the park that drew constant criticism - it was in the center. There was certainly an element of truth to this at times, particularly during the earlier stages of the of the season. However, during the run-in, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs both found their form and their partnership was a vital reason why United experienced success in the Spring. The criticism of United's central players during the Champions League versus FC Barcelona was perhaps harsh - it was hardly fair to expect Carrick, Giggs, and Wayne Rooney (when he dropped deep) to compete with the world's three best midfielders (in their particular roles) in the world - this was further compounded when the best player in the world would come deep and give his side a 4 v 3 advantage in the center of the pitch. 

Paul Scholes and his genius are no longer available to manager Sir Alex Ferguson. While much has been made about the need for another creative midfielder to join the club, none has been brought yet to Old Trafford during the current transfer window. United appear to mostly have the same players available to them for this upcoming season - the one exception being the exciting Tom Cleverley, who has been brought back from Wigan Athletic where he was on loan. Here are tables that provide relevant statistics for both Premier League and Champions League action from last season for the currently available players (via Opta):

PREM

App

Goals

Assists

Key Pass/Gm

Avg. Pass/Gm

Pass Acc %

Tackle per gm

Interception per gm

Carrick

23(5)

0

0

0.6

51.1

87%

2.2

2.0

Giggs

19(6)

2

6

2.4

36.6

73%

1.4

0.9

Anderson

14(4)

1

2

0.8

38.0

83%

1.8

1.1

Fletcher

24(2)

2

6

1.0

53.6

84%

1.1

1.5

Cleverley

19(6)

3

2

1.0

25.4

82%

1.9

1.0

A table for Champions League statistics and individual player previews after the jump...

UCL

App

Goals

Assists

Key Pass/Gm

Avg. Pass/Gm

Pass Acc %

Tackle per gm

Interception per gm

Carrick

11

0

1

0.5

70.8

88%

2.7

4.4

Giggs

6(2)

1

5

2.0

43.6

78%

1.3

1.5

Anderson

4(2)

3

0

1.3

36.0

83%

1.5

1.3

Fletcher

5(2)

1

1

1.3

53.0

84%

1.0

0.9

Cleverley

-

-

 -

-

-

-

-

-

 

MICHAEL CARRICK

Carrick arrived from Tottenham Hotspur during the summer of 2006 and since then, he has mostly been a regular in United's first-choice lineup. The England international divides opinion and perhaps this is due to fluctuation in his form - he certainly appears to be a confidence player. Undoubtedly though, Carrick was terrific last season during the run-in, particularly in Champions League play. For the upcoming season, Carrick will most likely resume his duties in a holding role and look to dictate the tempo of the matches while shielding his defense. 

87% and 88% passing accuracy in the Premier League and Champions League, respectively, exhibits assured distribution. A criticism of Carrick that is often mentioned is that he plays too many square balls rather than more direct passes - this is also evident by his low rate of key passes per game. However, the midfielder's role, which is most often from a deep-lying position, is simply to distribute the ball out wide to the wingers or to a more advanced player through the center - the true creative forces in United's attack. Carrick's steady distribution, when he is in form, sets the tempo in matches - his 70.8 passes per game with 88% accuracy in the Champions League last season is superb. In addition, he is capable of playing incisive diagonal balls to the flanks - this was demonstrated by his brilliant ball to Giggs at Stamford Bridge, which led to the only goal in that tie.

While not a crunching tackler in the mold of Roy Keane, Carrick's positional awareness and keen understanding of how to press space enables him to be a much better defender than most give him credit for. His tackling numbers over the past few seasons have been higher than average for someone that plays in his area of the pitch. However, his true effectiveness is demonstrated by consistently high interception rate - his 4.4 per game in Europe last season was phenomenal. In combination with his tidy distribution, this allows United to break at speed while in attack and catch the opposition out of position. 

RYAN GIGGS

Superlatives are often used to describe the Welshman these days, and deservedly so. Therefore, I will refrain from repetition and merely discuss how Giggsy can contribute to the club this season. He was obviously a fantastic winger, amongst the greatest ever from the left side, but the 37-year-old's true value this season may lie in the center of the pitch. In the past few seasons, Giggs has been used at times in the center as the most advanced player in a three-man midfield. Last season during the run-in he was featured more prominently in a two-man midfield, forming a formidable partnership with Carrick. For the upcoming season, the ageless one will likely line up all over the park - on the flanks, advanced in a three-man midfield, or as a box-to-box player ahead of a holding player in the middle. It is perhaps in the center where the legend can further squeeze out another season or two before he departs Old Trafford. 

During the run-in when United played in a 4-4-1-1 system, Giggs fluidly interchanged with Park Ji-sung and Rooney. While Carrick held shape and kept United organized versus counterattacks, Giggs roamed free and often made delayed runs into the box. While his passing accuracy in both league play and in Europe might seem low, this is mostly due to his often attempts at playing an incisive and defense-splitting pass . His brilliant 2.4 key passes per game in league last season can attest to this. While there has been much discussion about United needing a creative playmaker in the center, perhaps it is Giggs that can provide this - he admirably did so last season during the successful title run and in the knock-out stages of Europe. 

ANDERSON

The Brazilian was brought over to United from Porto in the summer of 2007 for a reported fee of £17 million, depending on the source. Since then, Anderson has not quite lived up to the hype of his signing but he has contributed at times as a squad player. While exhibiting natural ability as a box-to-box midfielder, he has also shown the ability to play as the most advanced player in a midfield trio or as a deeper-lying player in a midfield duo. This flexibility enables him to be an option in any system that Fergie uses and also allows him to be compatible with any of United's other central players. Ando will likely get a tremendous opportunity this upcoming season to cement his place in the team. He's shown flashes of brilliance during his United career, but can he stay healthy and show consistency? 

The statistics for Ando essentially display the traits of a box-to-box midfielder. His defense is solid, his distribution is mostly tidy, and he has the ability to provide a final killer ball while breaking at speed on the counter. He is even showing signs that he is ready to score more goals in the coming seasons - he scored four late last season and he's shown finishing ability in the pre-season. 

DARREN FLETCHER

The Scot is a product of United's youth academy and has been involved with the club since 1995. After making his professional debut in 2001, Darren Fletcher failed to inspire many that support the club - this even included an infamous interview from MUTV where Keano criticized the then youngster. Since then though, Fletcher has gone to establish himself at United and he is generally regarded as a valuable squad player now. The industrious midfielder is a natural box-to-box player, but he's also shown his versatility by being able to play wide on the right - both in midfield and in defense. His passing is assured as well, as the Scot is accurate with his short passing, even if he is somewhat uninspiring in his playmaking abilities. This is fine though as Fletcher's role is simply to provide bite in the midfield and to keep possession - something that he does very well.

Fletcher missed most of the latter portion of last season due to a mysterious virus. This illness, one that sapped him of his fitness, also kept him from traveling with the club during their United States preseason tour. While Fergie is stating that the midfielder is available for the season's start, it perhaps best to not expect much from Fletcher until he gets a run of games and shows form and fitness. If healthy though, the 27-year-old can be an important contributor for the upcoming campaign.

TOM CLEVERLEY

After spending the past few seasons on loan, the 21-year-old looks to have earned himself a place in United's squad for the upcoming season. As of late, his rise has seemed almost meteoric after sensational pre-season performances versus Barcelona and Manchester City. In the former match, Fergie said Cleverley was his "best player" and in the latter match, during Sunday's FA Community Shield, it was the youngster that came on at half and sparked United to come back from a two goal deficit. This all resulted in his first call-up to England's senior side for a friendly against Holland - one that was ultimately cancelled due to the rioting in London.

While on loan last season with Wigan, Cleverley played all throughout the midfield. For United in this upcoming season, all indications are that he will mostly be asked to play in the center. There has been much discussion in the past week or so that Cleverley's emergence may be enough to hold off any more summer buys for the club - particularly for Inter's Wesley Sneijder. While this may be a bit much to ask of the youngster, it does speak volumes to his rise and his fight for a prominent role at the club for the upcoming season. 

PARK JI-SUNG

While mostly a winger, Park has served a tactical purpose in the center in the past. When United use a three-man central midfield, the industrious Korean has been used as the most advanced midfielder - not in a role as an incisive-playmaker, but as a defensive-attacker. This was most notable when Fergie used Park to man-mark the deep-lying Andrea Pirlo in a Champions League matchup with Milan in 2010. The playmaking Pirlo, while sitting in front of his defense, was stifled by Park and this was arguably the tactical move of that two-legged tie. Fergie once again used Park in this role last season at Upton Park when he minimized the effectiveness of West Ham United's Scott Parker

Park has been experimented in a two-man central midfield as well, but to lesser effect. In the match versus Arsenal last season at the Emirates, Park lost Aaron Ramsey in his own box and the Welshman punished United with a goal. Park often interchanged as well with Giggs last season during the run-in, while one played wide on the left and the other in the center - once again, Park seemed uncomfortable and unaware of his tactical duties while playing a bit deeper in the center. 

PHIL JONES

The new summer signing was brought over to Old Trafford this summer with an eye towards the future - mainly as a possible successor in due time for either Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic. For the now though, the versatile Jones offers the ability to play as a holding midfielder. Last season for Blackburn Rovers, the 19-year-old lined up 18 times as a holding midfielder where he played deep and between the lines - he was asked to shield his defense and patrol the area where a classic number ten likes to roam. Whenever Fergie elects to play with a three-man central midfield this season, it will be possible that Jones is asked to play at the midfield's base at some point. 

PAUL POGBA

In the sport of fooball, comparisons are inevitable as past experiences often help people envision the now or future in clearer perspective - or so is the rationale. The 18-year-old Frenchman was a vital member of last Spring's FA Youth Cup winning side. Because he is big and powerful as well, he's drawn the obvious comparison to Patrick Vieira. Pogba is bit of a more box-to-box type though and he's able to get forward into the attack with delayed and well-timed runs. There are indications that the promising Pogba might get some first-team opportunities this season. 

RAVEL MORRISON

The mercurial Morrison is considered to be one of the most promising youth players to come from England in quite some time. However, the attacking-midfielder has had some well-documented legal trouble and questions remain whether his natural talent will go to waste. If the 18-year-old can keep out of trouble, he likely will get first-team opportunities over the coming season. His talent at this age is considered by many to only have been rivaled by Scholes and Giggs. Simply put, he's an enormous talent and it is not silly to proclaim that he could be the most viable candidate to eventually replace Scholesy -- if he can he stay out of jail. 

Note: In case that you missed them, here are our previews for center-backfull-back, and goalkeeper

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