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Shipped from abroad, England: Win rings in latest ‘Man United’s midfielder-less’ season

Manchester United's English midfielder P

Manchester United’s English midfielder Paul Scholes kicks the ball during the friendly football match between Manchester United and FC Barcelona at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg on August 8, 2012. AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GettyImages)

AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, Manchester City came back to beat newly-promoted Southampton at home, 3-2. People questioned their dramatic ways and vaguely alluded to fragility, but being the defending champions with an unimpeachable squad, Manchester City saw their criticism abate. It was just the opening week of the season. There wasn’t a real scenario where a close call against Southampton was anything but a mild aberration. It’s all part of the Manchester City narrative.

When Manchester United won 3-2 at St. Mary’s on Sunday, the tone was completely different. That’s because the narrative around United’s evolved. No longer are they a unstoppable behemoth orchestrated by a venerable wizard whose spells inexplicably conjure results. Now they’re an inherently flawed team, one that won’t accomplish anything as long as they have a weak central midfield. Sure they spend money on attackers like Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young. And yeah, at the back they’ve sprung for Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and David de Gea. But the Glazers are skimming so much money off the top, Alex Ferguson is left with a midfield so depleted that only American capitalist interventionism can be blamed.

Like most narratives, it’s a mix of truth and exaggeration. Manchester United has lost some if its swagger after crashing out of last year’s Champions League group stage, but no team accumulated more points in last year’s Premier League. Their owners are rumored to be pulling the purse strings, but the club has made five big signings in the last three windows. Their midfield seems weak to us, but it’s also not something that’s kept them from success.

Here are the players who’ve started in central midfield for Manchester United over the last five seasons along with their Premier League and Champions League results:

Screen shot 2012-09-03 at 12.35.06 PM

Five years ago, Manchester United were champions of England and Europe with a midfield built around Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. In the interim, Darren Fletcher has played a more prominent role, Ryan Giggs has been moved inside, while Anderson and Tom Cleverley have been given a chance to earn first choice roles.

Manchester United’s midfield is not clearly weaker than it was when the Red Devils where winning everything. You could make an argument it’s stronger (more options and talent) or weaker (possible fading of Scholes and Carrick), but both explanations would be within reason.

Relative to their competition, the recent Red Devils have always been soft in the middle. Manchester United’s recent success has never been built on their central midfield, and although the club soccer world has become a more midfield-looking place, 89 points in last year’s Premier League hints there’s more than one way to get results. While the improved quality of the English league makes Ferguson’s reticence to buy midfielder odd, the results suggest we may want to explore other hypothesis.

Is it possible Manchester United’s midfielders are merely underrated? Or, are we overstating the impact of central midfielders? Perhaps Darren Fletcher is much better than we think, and Ferguson is waiting for his return? Or maybe, as Ferguson has said before, the market for central midfielders is inflated, and he has wisely elected to allocated United’s resources elsewhere?

It is confounding, though. Amid all the money Manchester United has spent on players, why won’t they just buy a central midfielder? They got Shinji Kagawa and were so close to getting Wesley Sneijder, but as Kagawa has shown United fans, there’s a huge difference between somebody who plays at the highest level of midfield and somebody who can dominate where Carrick and Scholes patrol.

But just because United doesn’t have that player doesn’t mean they won’t compete for this the title. It doesn’t mean they’ll repeat last year’s Champions League performance. And it doesn’t mean their 3-2 at St. Marys is more indicting than Manchester City’s result two weeks before.

Elsewhere in England

  • Brendan Rodgers is still manager at Liverpool. John Henry knows attack’s an issue. Liverpool remains the friend of writers who don’t want to talk about the games. The Reds aren’t actually that bad.
  • Swansea City finally dropped their first points of the season, steamrolled by the inertia-fed boulder that is Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher signing. The former Wolves man scored twice on his debut (a 2-2 result at the Liberty Stadium), almost enough to calm concerns Martin O’Neill drastically overspent.
  • Spurs are still winless under Andre Villas-Boas, again faltering late in a 1-1 draw with previously point-less Norwich. Tom Huddlestone marked his first appearance under AVB with a red card.
  • Everton will not take over the world, but West Brom might. The Toffees lost for the first time this year (2-0 at The Hawthorns), while Steve Clarke’s team has earned seven points through three games. A couple more weeks like that, and people might start talking about them.
  • It took Andy Carroll less than a minute to have an impact at West Ham, heading a ball on that eventually became Kevin Nolan’s opening goal. The Hammers beat Fulham 3-0. Carroll celebrated his debut by pulling out of England’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
  • Manchester City won 3-1 in a game QPR would have preferred play at the bottom of a pool.
  • Aston Villa earned a point at Newcastle. The should have been the lead. The 1-1 was Villa’s first result of the season.