Manchester United 2011/12 position-by-position review: Central-Midfield (Part 1 of 2)

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Tom Cleverley of Manchester United goes off injured during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park on October 29, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Next up for our Manchester United 2011/12 season player reviews is the central-midfield. I'm continuing to segment the posts in a position-by-position (goalkeepers, centre-backs, full-backs, central-midfielders, wingers, & strikers) manner. Each of the reviews are organized by the following:

* 'What we thought' - the general and overall expectations that we had for this position prior to the season.

* 'What we got' - On an individual basis, I'll provide a review of the season.

* What lies ahead?' - The outlook next season for the position and a discussion if reinforcements are needed.

There are eight United players that I'd like to include in the review of central-midfield. Because that likely would result in an incredibly lengthy piece, I'm going to divide it up into two parts: Part 1 will discuss the 'What we thought' segment and also the players who featured most often prior to the new year in the 'What we got' segment. Part II will continue the 'What we got' segment by discussing the players who featured most often after the new year and it'll also include the 'What lies ahead?' segment. This is actually a neat divide because younger and mobile players tended to feature in central-midfield during the early months of the season while experience and control tended to be the dominate theme in the latter portion of the season.

After the jump, some relevant statistics for our central-midfield from this past season's involvement in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League is provided:

The Busby Babe

App

G

A

Sh/gm

Pass %

Avg Pass/gm

CC/gm

LB/gm

LB %

TKL /gm

INT/ gm

CARRICK

Prem

27(2)

2

3

0.90

90.1%

73.07

1.03

5.97

82.1%

3.00

2.37

UCL

4

0

0

0.25

91.2%

85.25

0.50

11.25

88.2%

3.00

3.75

SCHOLES

Prem

14(3)

4

0

1.24

93.1%

66.88

1.06

9.53

88.0%

2.29

1.41

UCL

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

ANDERSON

Prem

8(2)

2

1

1.00

86.0%

51.40

1.30

4.60

68.7%

2.30

1.50

UCL

3

0

0

1.00

81.1%

69.0%

0.67

6.67

74.1%

2.33

2.00

CLEVERLEY

Prem

5(5)

0

1

0.90

91.5%

30.50

0.50

1.30

76.5%

1.10

0.50

UCL

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

GIGGS

Prem

14(11)

2

8

0.76

80.2%

32.44

1.80

2.40

60.0%

1.12

1.20

UCL

3

1

2

1.67

76.9%

60.67

3.00

4.33

76.5%

1.33

1.33

JONES

Prem

25(4)

1

2

0.86

83.9%

33.31

0.55

2.41

77.8%

2.34

1.69

UCL

4(2)

1

1

0.50

84.4%

39.50

0.67

2.50

71.4%

1.50

1.50

FLETCHER

Prem

7(1)

1

1

0.38

89.9%

59.50

1.13

7.13

89.1%

1.38

1.13

UCL

2

1

0

1.50

86.5%

70.50

0.00

7.50

88.2%

1.00

1.50

* App = appearances, G = goals, A = assists, Sh = shots, CC = chances created, LB = long balls, TKL = tackles, INT = interceptions

What we thought

If there was an area in the squad that some felt was relatively weak, it was in the center of the park. Despite the retirement of the legendary Paul Scholes, the unpredictable medical condition that made Darren Fletcher's availability uncertain, and Owen Hargreaves' considerable injury history resulting in him not receiving a new contract, United still had not bought a first-team central-midfielder since the summer of 2007 -- when Anderson was brought in from Porto for a fee in the region of £25 million and when Hargreaves was brought in from Bayern Munich for a fee in the region of £17 million. There was summer speculation that United were flirting with the idea of bringing in Wesley Sneijder or Samir Nasri but neither were acquired because the former's wage demands were supposedly too high while the latter eventually signed for Manchester City. Some labeled these sort of attacking-midfielders as possible 'Scholes replacements' but that never made much sense since the United legend hadn't played that high up the pitch in nearly a decade -- and even when he did, it was only for a few seasons. What United actually needed was a deeper-lying player that could dictate the rhythm and tempo of games -- something that was the true Scholes' specialty. That player never arrived.

Despite being overrun by FC Barcelona's midfield in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final -- just like every other side that encounters the Catalans in recent times -- the duo of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, with Wayne Rooney dropping deep to support, were generally very good for the previous season's run-in. In addition, Ando had finished the 2010/11 season in decent form and he was showing promise in the pre-season. Furthermore, highly-rated Tom Cleverley was joining the first-team after a successful loan spell with Wigan Athletic. There was even hope that Fletcher could contribute. The situation was far from ideal but there were some solid experienced players supplemented by some youthful promise.

What we got

Anderson - At season's beginning, Anderson looked inspired and it was he -- along with Cleverley -- that set the tone for a new-look attack that was faster and more fluid. Some have questioned the Brazilian's commitment to football but there is little doubt that when he's in the mood, his energy and ability to cover a lot of ground provides United with drive from midfield and a player willing to make himself available anywhere on the pitch. Ando did well early in the season to supply the fluid front four of Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani, and Ashley Young. He even supplemented the attack by getting forward with late-arriving runs into the box and his ability to combine through the use of one-touch passes complimented the front four well. Ando's early success was short-lived though.

Ando would go on to make only 8 league starts and 3 Champions League starts as a knee injury in November essentially derailed the rest of his campaign. The injury kept him out much longer than anticipated and the details of it was somewhat of a mystery this season. Thus, there were some rumblings that the Brazilian had fallen out of favor.

Consistency, and perhaps dedication, is an issue for this player signed through 2015. If Ando remains at United, and when he's in decent form, he still provides United an energetic box-to-box player that can use his drive to burst through defenses. In a midfield duo, he's probably best complimented by a positionally aware player such as Carrick because his partnership with Cleverley left the back four exposed. In a 4-3-3 midfield trio, he's capable of playing a slightly advanced midfield role and his energy can help protect distributors such as Carrick and Scholes. Ando's ability to hit a long diagonal pass out to the wingers leaves a little to be desired but he is capable of quickly sweeping a 20-30 yard pass out wide to the feet of wingers and full-backs.

Tom Cleverley - It's a bit silly how much praise Cleverley has received when considering that he's only made five Premier League starts thus far in his United career. However, his talent is clear and in addition to his solid start this season for United, he has recently excelled during loan spells at Wigan, Watford, and Leicester City.

Just like Ando, Cleverley was a key component to United's sensational attack in August and September. And again like Ando, an injury -- his being in late October -- would hinder the rest of the 22-year-old's season. The Englishman also made sporadic appearances after the new year and his fitness concerns certainly hindered his form. His overall season was slightly disappointing but the short-lived heights he lived in August and September revealed that United have a possible star in the making. His season may have paralleled Ando's, but the hope for his future at United is higher and much more optimistic.

During his brief time on the pitch this season, and during his time with Wigan last season, there are hints that Cleverley is a direct attacking-midfielder. Rather than sit deep and play safe passes, or even distribute the long diagonal balls that are required by United's relatively deep central-midfielders, he seems to prefer bursting forward from midfield so that he can join the attack and quickly combine. Rather than roam between the lines like a 'number 10', he seems to prefer timing his runs into that space from an initial deeper position. Cleverley may be well suited to partner a positionally aware ball-winner in a midfield duo or as a slightly advanced player in a midfield trio. This may sound like the earlier description for Ando, but he's more a box-to-box type while Cleverley is a more attacking-midfield type.

Phil Jones - The 20-year-old was expensively brought in over the past summer and he was thought to be the future partner for Chris Smalling at centre-back. However, Jones' versatility allowed him to be a utility man and six of his starts this season -- in league and in Champions League -- occurred in central-midfield. He was even in central-midfield for England when they upset Spain -- the national side with the world's best central-midfielders -- at Wembley in November.

In December, Jones' energy liberated the metronomic Carrick when the duo partnered together in central-midfield. In a box-to-box role, he was simply asked to play the easy pass while more importantly, making sure he was a combative presence. Despite his ball-winning abilities, he didn't really feature as a holding-midfielder as this role was entrusted more to the positionally aware Carrick or the experienced Fletcher in the limited times that Jones featured in a midfield trio. If United don't bring in an energetic and combative central-midfielder during the summer transfer window, Jones could find himself in that role again at times next season.

Darren Fletcher - To be quite honest, I was a bit surprised to see that Fletcher had made 7 league starts this season. I remember his sublime curler in the 1-6 derby disaster and I remember being somewhat surprised that it was he in the holding role in United's 4-1-4-1 shape in a match versus Liverpool -- rather than his energy being used a bit higher while Carrick patrolled that holding area -- but that's about it. Therefore, I kind of suck at reviewing the Scotsman's season. So, uh... to brief bullet points and stats!

* 89.9% passing rate: I've always argued that Fletch was a better distributor than he's given credit for. And no, this number isn't high because he simply plays square and back passes...

* 7.13 accurate long balls per game at a 89.1% success rate: No one compares to Scholesy in this regard, except for maybe the incredible Andrea Pirlo. Oh wait, here are the Ginger Maestro's stats in comparison: 9.53 accurate long balls per game at a 88.0% success rate. Okay, okay -- Scholes is unmatched at arrowing a 30-40 yard long diagonal ball to the feet of a winger near the touchline in the attacking third while Fletch excels more at sweeping a lower 20-25 yard pass out wide near the halfway line. Point is, Fletch ain't as bad as some think in regards to his distribution.

* I'm using my third and final bullet point to say I miss you Darren Fletcher. Your tactical importance -- of being the motor and blue-collar liberator for the fine midfield technicians (e.g. Scholes, Scholes, Scholes, Scholes, and Carrick) -- is unappreciated by many. Get well... but if you never do, there are many of us who are grateful for your tremendous service to United.

In Part II, a review of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Park Ji-sung will be provided.

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