This is part 2 of our position-by-position examination of Manchester United's squad after the recent closure of the January transfer window. Here's Part 1 -- covering goalkeepers and defenders -- in case you missed it. Part 2 will cover central-midfielders, central-attacking-midfielders/secondary strikers, wingers, and strikers. The players mentioned are either established first-team players at United or those on loan to another club. Their ages will given in parenthesis. Some players will be listed in multiple positions because of their versatility.
What we currently have: Michael Carrick (31) is the midfield stalwart and according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson, he's having his best season at Old Trafford. The maestro often sets the tempo in games, his durability makes him a reliable selection choice, his range of passing is only bettered by Paul Scholes, and his positional awareness is key to United's shape.
Tom Cleverley (23) began to earn his place at the club last season and this season, he's more often than not -- when available for selection -- been first-choice to partner Carrick in the center of the park. He's even began to establish himself into Roy Hodgson's England side. The 23-year-old offers tactical awareness, energy, and the ability to quickly circulate the ball due to his mobility and tidy distribution. Cleverley is certainly one for both the now and the future.
It's hard to believe that Anderson is just 24-years-old as he's already in his sixth season at United. The Brazilian hasn't lived up to the high expectations set for him but he still offers a lot to the team. He provides the drive that no other midfielder on the squad can, he's able to pick out a defense-splitting pass in the attacking third, and his (on the pitch) work-ethic typically allows him to carry the ball forward from the back to the attack -- whether that be through direct dribbling or quick pass-and-move combinations that gets the ball forward. The downside to Ando is that his continual injuries and inconsistencies doesn't make him reliable.
The versatile Phil Jones (20) is an option as well -- specifically when a physical presence is required. His recent performance against Tottenham Hotspur summed up well what he brings: his combativeness did well to prevent United from being overrun in midfield but his wayward passing at times took away some of the fluidity in his sides passing game.
The trio of Scholes (38), Ryan Giggs (39), and Darren Fletcher (29) are next in the pecking order and each have been valuable servants to Manchester United. The latter has serious health issues while the former two could possibly retire at season's end. On his day, Scholes can still control matches and his passing range is only rivaled by greats such as Juventus' Andrea Pirlo and Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez. Giggs is hit-or-miss in central-midfield but his incisive passing is always a threat to provide a moment of genius -- this was perhaps most obvious when he picked out Robin van Persie a month ago with such precision for the Dutchman's FA Cup equaliser against West Ham United.
Is there a need? YES. With the futures of Scholes, Giggs, and Fletch uncertain, that only leaves Carrick, Cleverley, and Ando as choices in midfield. The former three shouldn't be relied upon anyway, whether that be because of age or uncertain health. United need a physical presence in the center of the park to compliment their technical players and they probably need a long-term tempo-setting heir to Carrick and Scholes. Celtic's Victor Wanyama (21) is continually being watch by Ferguson and his scouts -- the Kenyan might be worth a curious look for United fans when his side take on Juventus next week in a Champions League fixture.
What we currently have: In this No.10 sort of role, United have two tremendous options in Wayne Rooney (27) and Shinji Kagawa (23). The Englishman can provide industry and this is often important because it helps his side compete better against sides that deploy three midfielders. In addition, Rooney's passing range -- particularly his ability to hit long diagonal balls out to the flanks -- is vital as is his finishing ability. His weaknesses include a first-touch that can leave a bit to be desired on some days and poor decision-making at times.
Kagawa is a more traditional No.10 and arguably a type of player Ferguson has never had during his long 26+ year reign at Old Trafford. In the attacking third, the Japanese international offers imagination that no other player on the squad has -- his ability to provide an incisive through-ball is unrivaled at United. The playmaker's appreciation of space is wonderful as is his movement. Defensively, his strengths lie in his ability to press the opposition's central-defenders or in his ability to cut out passing lanes from the back four to a deep-lying midfielder.
Giggs and Ashley Young (27) can be deployed in this role, as well, in a pinch. RvP, when partnered by Chicharito up front, also tends to drop off and operate in the space between the lines.
Is there a need?: No.
What we currently have: United have a talented (and currently out of form or injured) trio of natural winger options in Antonio Valencia (27), Nani (26), and Young (27). The Ecuadorian is the most traditional of them as he hugs the touchline waiting to receive. From here, he offers maximum width and he horizontally expands the attacking space for his teammates. When Valencia does receive, he's instructed to take on his marker and beat him to the the byline for a cross -- he's usually brilliant at this, not so much, though, this season.
Nani is arguably the most talented and versatile of the trio. He prefers the right-flank but he's capable of beating his marker to outside on both sides while he can also cut inside and fire on goal with either foot. His end product is hit-or-miss, though, and this certainly frustrates teammates and supporters at times. He's also in worst form at the moment in a few years and it's uncertain if he sees his future at Old Trafford.
Young is capable of playing on either flank but at the moment, he's clearly more effective on the left. The Englishman can receive near the touchline and offer width or his clever movement can take him into pockets of space on the inside left. In the attacking third, he can beat his full-back to the outside but his crossing with his left-foot is a bit limp. His strength is when he cuts inside onto his stronger right-foot so that he can either whip in a cross or fire on goal with a curling effort to the far-post.
Giggs, Rooney, Kagawa, and Danny Welbeck can all put in a shift in nominal wide roles. None, though, are true out-and-out wingers.
Is there a need?: Maybe. The highly-rated Wilfried Zaha (20) is on his way to the Theatre of Dreams in the summer and he'll be another natural winger option. Nani, though, as previously mentioned, could be on his way out. If that happens, United might need to search for a replacement. Winger is a position the club is highly dependent on for creativity and it's also a position where a player's form often fluctuates -- proper depth is paramount. If Valencia continues to struggle through the run-in, this might add a reason to search for more options out wide. Porto's James Rodriguez (21) is a player United have been extensively scouting.
What we currently have: Ferguson has the highly-rated quartet of Robin van Persie (29), Javier Hernandez (24), Danny Welbeck (22), and Rooney (27) at his disposal. RvP is a world-class No.9 and he's been the best player in England the past two years -- he's also in the conversation as the world's best player not named Lionel Messi or Cristinao Ronaldo. The Dutchman provides it all -- lethal finishing, purpose in movement, sublime technique, vision, set-piece delivery, and consistency.
Chicharito is a fantastic third or fourth choice up front -- he's even a worthy starter for a big club when he's in good form. The Mexican international is an assassin in the box as his ability to create separation from his marker and his clinical finishing ability make him a tremendous goalscorer. His searing pace also forces the the opposition's defense back and in turn, this often creates space underneath for playmakers like Rooney, Kagawa, and RvP. His all-around game is nothing special but he's improving in this regard.
Welbeck had a very good first full season at the club in 2011-12. His all-around game and athleticism impressed. The youngster's movement is very good -- his runs into the channels are particularly threatening -- and this is aided by his pace. His quickness and touch also allows him to combine well in tight spaces as well. The biggest weakness in his game, though, is his finishing. His strike rate is not good enough and it will have to drastically improve if he ever wants to be considered one of football's top strikers. Age is on the England international's side.
Rooney is versatile to be deployed either out wide, in a No.9 role ('false 9' is probably more accurate for him), or in his preferred No.10 role. He's capable of leading the attacking line, though, just as he admirably did for England at the midweek in a friendly against Brazil.
The one absolute need on the squad is a physical presence in central-midfield. It's uncertain if the club itself has identified this as a need but perhaps their scouting of the powerhouse Wanyama is in recognition of it. This is probably the most glaring weakness on the squad and it's most immediate need.
Other possible needs are dependent on if certain players currently on the squad depart in the summer. Another experienced central-defender may be needed if Rio Ferdinand (34) decides to depart and/or if Nemanja Vidic (31) continues to have trouble with his knee. Another winger may need to be brought in as well if Nani leaves the club. A new No.1 could be on the shopping list if David de Gea (22) doesn't convince during the run-in.
Longer term needs include a tempo-setter in midfield that can dictate games and an eventual replacement for Patrice Evra (31) if the club doesn't deem Alexander Buttner (23) nor Fabio da Silva (22) as adequate.