By Omar Soliman
The Premier League is back and after the defeat to Everton questions are already being asked. Kneejerk reactions are simply that and given that there are 37 league matches remaining there is little cause for tangible concern. New signings need time to bed in and partnerships need matches to develop. Fear not, the goals and points will come. If anything, losing the opening game of the season can act as a wake-up call and allows for some fine tweeking. The transfer window is still open and the manner of the defeat has shown up another deficiency in the squad – the lack of a bodyguard.
Those that have played the game at the highest level assert that matches can be won and lost in the tunnel. Call it an aura, simply call it intimidation but seeing a dead-eyed Roy Keane leading Manchester United out onto any football pitch must have put the beejeebies up many, just ask Patrick Vieira. Regardless of reputation, simply the sight of such a contained rage and focused concentration would have reduced World Cup winners to mere mortals and Adrian Chiles to a gibbering wreck of a man. Imagine knowing he was in your midfield, snarling at all oncomers, willing to put his body on the line for the cause. Inspirational isn’t it and you would not want to let the man down.
As reported elsewhere, the days of the midfield bodyguard are numbered. Winning the ball back and playing it simple is not enough anymore. The art of the ‘reducer’ has been outlawed and any tackle intended to cause damage to an opponent now comes with a red card. Thanks to the intervention of FIFA coupled with the current trend of slight, nifty, scheming playmakers a la Lionel Messi, David Silva and Juan Mata having someone there simply to do the dirty work is seen as a man too many. Not when midfielders are now multi-taskers to the point where they are expected to interchange position, intercept, run between lines, provide telling passes and start attacking moves.
Despite the bodyguard becoming an endangered species, their value can be immense. Knowing that there is someone patrolling midfield allows peace of mind to playmakers and a reassurance that a loose ball can be swiftly won back. It seems that the bodyguard has been left behind by ball playing midfields. However, take the example of Newcastle United. Their season exceeded expectations largely due to a midfield pivoted by Cheick Tiote’s scrapping performances which allowed for Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye to shine further up the field.
Times gone by were so different. In the early 1990’s, Sir Alex Ferguson could send out a team containing Keane, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes. Men who could outmuscle as well as outplay their direct opponent. Men you would want alongside you on the frontline or in a bar room brawl. Men who could put in day-long benders drinking premium strength lager exclusively.
How football has evolved. Look at the line-up for the match against Everton. Out of 11, the only player who could fit the bill would be Nemanja Vidic. Growing up with the sound of bombers overhead would make a man out of most, perhaps typified by the fact that he would put his head where many would think twice about putting their feet. Plus, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ivan Drago.
Behind him, David de Gea still has the appearance of a schoolboy in a shirt two sizes too big for him. To his left, Patrice Evra seems to bounce off opponents when attempting to ease anyone off the ball. In front of him, Michael Carrick seems to float over the pitch with such grace, as if a breeze would knock him over. Granted, having Carrick out of position highlighted his understated importance for using the ball yet simply having the option of a bodyguard in the squad would be a welcome asset.
No wonder United’s midfield looks a bit light, a bit too… nice. In games which can be won by skill alone, the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley excel. Without a bodyguard, the emphasis lies on ball retention which adds pressure to a midfield built to create. On the odd occasion that a team adopts a physical approach like Everton’s, Marouane Fellaini can be made to look like Goliath amongst Davids. Size matters, but so does protection.
What United need is some physicality to shadow the slight and not the suspiciously overweight sort that Anderson brings. A midfielder to introduce some nastiness when needed, a protector, a Dark Knight if you will. Alas, they are hard to come by with Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger being a prime example. The outlay would be significant but with a few weeks of the transfer window remaining a player of his build, his stature and his intimidation could be the final piece of the jigsaw. The creativity is there, all we need now is a safety net.