It was about two years ago that I began writing for this site and during that time, Manchester United were staying afloat in the Premier League title race due to the individual brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov and Nani in attack and a world-class Nemanja Vidic at the back. As the season wore on, the Red Devils found more cohesion and ultimately, they won their 19th top-flight title in England while they also reached the final of the UEFA Champions League.
For the run-in of that season, United developed a clear first-choice front six in their 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system: Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the lead striker with Wayne Rooney in behind him, Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-sung were the wingers, and Michael Carrick formed a central-midfield partnership with Ryan Giggs. This was far from Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest side but it was a successful one because of the balance that was established. Theoretically, the elegant passing duo of Carrick and Giggs were susceptible to being overrun but they were protected by Rooney's combativeness when he dropped deep and by Park's industry when he would fluidly interchange positions with Giggs. United have failed to find a proper balance since that time.
It's been discussed at lengths in these parts, but while the Red Devils were a force at last season's beginning in attack, which was supplemented by the dynamic duo of Tom Cleverley and Anderson driving forward from the center of the park, they lacked balance as evident by how exposed they were in the back due to their open shape. After the 1-6 Manchester derby disaster at Old Trafford in October of last year, Ferguson tightened the shape and United eked out 1-0 wins in four of their five following games. The introduction of Carrick back into the side helped provide some stability. The then champions, though, bowed out of the Champions League by early December.
In January of this year, Paul Scholes came out of retirement and to the pleasant surprise of United and their supporters, the legendary midfielder began to string together some world-class performances. Together with Carrick, the two deep-lying playmakers took control of matches by dictating tempo and cadence. United, in fact, went months without losing when Scholes featured. They also went from an eight-point deficit in the title-race at one point-- albeit, United had a game in hand at that moment -- to an eight-point lead. While this Carrick and Scholes axis sparked the team, it was also vulnerable against physical opposition. Yaya Toure powering through the United midfield like a hot knife through butter in the title-decider in late April displayed this. United simply didn't have enough balance in midfield and their lack of a physical and/or dynamic presence cost them the title.
Over the summer, there were the familiar (and reasonable) shouts for a central-midfielder to be purchased in the transfer window. That player never came*. During the first five months of the current campaign, Carrick has been very solid and he's the obvious stalwart of the midfield for this United squad. Multiple partners (and formations) have been tried but none have flourished. Scholes has shown a decline in form and his age seems to be further affecting his limited mobility. Darren Fletcher is still recovering from a horrible chronic illness and he too, as of yet, has not shown the mobility that made him such a useful player in the past for Ferguson in big games. Ryan Giggs' best days are clearly behind him and he's even become a liability on the pitch at times. Anderson offers a unique dynanism and a good compliment to Carrick, but his fitness and form cannot be relied upon.
* 18-year-old Nick Powell came, but he's of more a central-attacking-midfielder and he hasn't shown that he's capable nor ready for a deeper role at this moment in time.
Tom Cleverley, theoretically, has always seemed to be a good compliment to Carrick . He's not only technically strong and tidy in distribution, but he's dynamic as well and his mobility and energy aid him well when he surges forward. Timing, though, is everything and when Carrick re-established himself last season as the foundation of the midfield, Cleverley spent the rest of that campaign struggling with injuries and form.
Cleverley performed well for Great Britain during the past Summer Olympic Games and he's generally been solid for United this season. Ferguson, though, has persisted with the old guard -- frustratingly to some supporters -- but neither Scholes nor Giggs have found consistent form. Ando provided a boost to the team a month ago and his impressive form had many excited ahead of the derby. Unfortunately though, and perhaps symbolic of his time at Old Trafford, the Brazilian sustained an injury the weekend prior to the highly anticipated clash. This provided an opportunity for Cleverley.
The England international was actually an injury doubt for the derby but he ended up being a surprise inclusion. He excelled in his partnership with Carrick as both, along with the help of Rooney dropping deep from his No.10 sort of role, nullified the dangerous Toure. This past weekend versus Sunderland, Cleverley once again impressed while partnering Carrick. Here is what Ferguson had to say about the 23-year-old after the match versus the Black Cats:
"Cleverley did very well in the derby and deserved his position. We have a lot of options in midfield with Anderson, who is injured at the moment, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. People says we're weak in midfield but these are very good players. Sometimes it gives me a problem with selecting the correct two but today [vs. Sunderland] was very simple though because Carrick and Cleverley deserved to play after last week."
- Ferguson | Source: ManUtd.com
Going forward, Ferguson should persist with this Carrick and Cleverley axis as the foundation of his midfield. The former provides stability with his calm passing from deep along with his tremendous positional awareness while the latter offers a dynamic presence with his mobility and eagerness to get forward. Both players are tactically astute players as well and an understanding appears to have been developed. This has been exhibited when they've been keenly aware to cover the space in behind when one gets forward. Perhaps this seems like something fundamental and simple, and it is, but this was a problem in the Ando and Cleverley partnership. In addition, this midfield duo has shown versatility: they impressed in a counterattacking approach during big games (e.g. away to both Chelsea and Manchester City) while they've also exemplified that they can take absolute control against weaker sides (e.g. Sunderland).
As long as Rooney is in the mood when he's asked to drop deep into midfield in order to help out with the defending there, the Red Devils are unlikely to be overrun (very often). Against top sides, a compact shape and counterattacking approach has already proven that results can be earned, even if performances haven't been entirely convincing yet over a full 90 minutes. Nonetheless, with the current personnel in the squad, and when considering Ferguson's stubborn refusal to buy a midfielder, this Carrick and Cleverley duo might offer United their most reliable** and balanced midfield.
** It can certainly be argued that Anderson is more dynamic and powerful than Cleverley, but the Brazilian is not as reliable in regards to his fitness and fluctuations in form.