When David Moyes signed Juan Mata on the 23rd January, it was heralded as a massive turning point for him and the club.
It was a signing that naturally captured the imagination of supporters desperately looking for something to cheer, and a sign that neither the manager nor his paymasters were willing to accept such a rapid decline to the role of also-rans.
But the most important element of that signing for me was that, unusually for these kind of deals, it didn’t happen in the last seconds of the window. It was sealed a full week before the window closed, and left sufficient time to sort out the other, more pressing problem area.
I convinced myself a midfielder would follow. And all would then be well. But it didn’t happen, and it might well be that who we didn’t sign in the window will ultimately prove more important than who we did.
There was always a decision to be made in January relating to the midfield. Should we sign a stop-gap type player that might improve us in the short-term (whilst perhaps not being the ultimate answer). Or should we wait until the close season to try and sign the kind of top quality player that will take us forward (the kind that is naturally difficult to secure mid-season).
Moyes opted for the latter. But in order to tempt his principal targets in the summer, we will likely need to secure a Champions League finish this season. And to do that, a couple of his current midfield will need to stand up and be counted.
In my opinion, our short-term prospects rest squarely on the shoulders of two men. Michael Carrick and, perhaps contentiously, Marouane Fellaini.
I’m sure that between now and the end of the season we’ll see plenty of rotation in the centre of our midfield, but I believe we are completely dependent on the duo named above. I don’t think we should be reliant on a 40-year old winger, or an accident prone centre-half, or a player only recently recovering from a serious ailment.
And we certainly shouldn’t be relying on Tom Cleverley, for obvious reasons.
It’s about Carrick and Fellaini, and if they can form a midfield partnership worthy of the name, we can still break Scouse hearts this season. And that might be just the tonic Moyes needs.
In my opinion Michael Carrick has been one of the biggest under-performers since the new broom swept into Carrington. Over the past few seasons, United fans have argued with all-comers about the value of Carrick. About his selfless work and slick passing in the middle of the pitch.
We’ve pittied those that couldn’t recognise his value, and felt pretty smug about it. We’ve waxed lyrical about this criminally under-rated pass-master. It’s hard to believe it’s not Scholes.
Well I’ve not heard much of that this season. And for good reason. He, more than anyone else has struggled to maintain the kind of form shown previously. Others have reason to be finding it tough – they are either too old, too impaired or simply too bad. Carrick has none of those excuses. He’s the best midfielder we’ve got, and he needs to embrace that fact, demonstrate he’s comfortable with the responsibility and capable of taking us forward. He has to address whatever personal issue he’s currently facing, and prove he’s the player most United fans have been lauding these last few seasons. Because so far this season, he hasn’t come close to doing that.
There will be new arrivals in the summer. If he wants to be playing alongside them, rather than passing them his shirt, it’s time to deliver. And with it being World Cup year, he can ill-afford to maintain his current personal impasse.
And the man I think can take some of that burden from Carrick is Marouane Fellaini. This will come as a surprise to many I’m sure, but bear with me. Whilst he’s hardly set the world alight up to now, everyone deserves a little patience and I hope the United faithful will afford him that.
I remember vividly Patrice Evra’s debut at the Etihad. Both he and Vidic took half a season to get used to their new surroundings. And Fellaini might just have needed that same bedding in period. Moyes showed a lot of faith when he paid Everton all that money for his services. It’s now time for him to prove the manager right, and start to pay back some of the figure invested.
I have to be honest, when we signed the Belgian I, like many others, was nonplussed and I’ve yet to see anything to change that opinion. He’d caused us problems in the past, but only when used as a nuisance up-front, flinging his arms about and getting his hair in people’s eyes. I’d not seen him perform this defensive midfield role successfully, so had (and to an extent maintain) doubts about his ability to do so.
But he evidently plays this role well for Belgium. And they’re no mugs. With that in mind, there has to be more to come from him than he’s shown thus far. I’m hopeful he just needed some time to find his feet.
He’s an experienced International, supposedly approaching the prime of his career. If he’s as good as better judges than I seem to believe, there is no reason that he can’t be of benefit to us in the remainder of the season. The reality is he has to, because we simply don’t have anyone else. If he can rise to this challenge now, he can make himself a hero, rather than merely a big-haired cult. Hero.
So whilst many will be looking to Juan Mata for the inspiration that saves our season, I’ll be looking just a little deeper. Because without a midfield, no amount of attacking flair will make the difference.
If Carrick and Fellaini can forge a properly functioning partnership in the middle of the pitch, we might yet be able to salvage something from this absolute car-crash of a season. If they don’t, the chances of a top 4 finish are virtually non-existent.
Your time is now gentlemen. And it’s running out.
A guest piece written by @ThisTimeSurely. Do you think Fellaini and Carrick have what it takes to salvage our season?