Ángel Di María and the problem of Manchester United’s central midfield


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Ángel di María and the problem of Manchester United’s central midfield” was written by Jamie Jackson, for The Guardian on Monday 25th August 2014 13.25 UTC

After another dismal Manchester United performance against Sunderland on Sunday came a Louis van Gaal revelation regarding his desperation to solve the dearth of central midfield talent at the club. “Kagawa – I have tried to play him in that position in the US and he could not fulfil my wishes and my philosophy,” the manager said of an experiment with the Japanese on the summer tour. “We have spoken about that and he is more of a No10. Mata was playing at No10 [at Sunderland] and I thought I had to change the other players, which is why I chose to bring on Januzaj.”

Van Gaal thereby signalled that Shinji Kagawa’s United career may be in critical condition and also illustrating why Ángel di María may be a £60m red herring. The Argentinian is a fine footballer, a member of the elite band below Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but he is no chief conductor of central areas.

To audition Kagawa for the role shows, in one stroke, Van Gaal’s assessment of Tom Cleverley, Marouane Fellaini, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Ander Herrera as a squadron, and illustrates where the manager feels he really should strengthen.

To compound this Fellaini, Herrera and Anderson, plus Jesse Lingard, the forward Van Gaal is forced to deploy further back, are all unavailable. Michael Carrick, another central midfielder, is also injured. This caused the use of Adnan Januzaj – a No10 or wide man – in the engine room when the Belgian entered the fray in the 63rd minute of Sunday’s 1-1 draw.

“It is not usual that we have four injuries in midfield,” Van Gaal said. “Every club that has that has a problem. That is why I played Januzaj in midfield because as a coach I want to win. I have said that we need creative passing and I thought Januzaj could provide that. That is the reason.

“It is because of creation. Kagawa can also create, but I asked Adnan to play there because of the lack of midfielders. When he played in Belgium, he played in midfield so I asked if he could do it for us. I said to him: ‘You are on the bench as a midfielder,’ because I want him to focus. He played there and you could see it’s not so many times that he’s played there. But he did his utmost and I cannot demand more.”

The United midfield problem is not new. Doctorates could – and maybe should – be written about how and why it is yet to be resolved. Van Gaal joins Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes as managers who, since Roy Keane and Paul Scholes faded and Owen Hargreaves suffered a career-hobbling injury, have found the problem a puzzle.

The word is that Di María, a wide player by instinct, could be moved inside though into the No10 position at present given to Juan Mata by Van Gaal. Yet even here doubt hovers. “At this moment, we have five No9s and four No10s and don’t have wingers to give us attacking width,” the Dutchman said a couple of weeks ago, before describing Di María as a winger of the “highest level”.

This suggests Van Gaal is not paying a British record fee for Di María to be a fifth No10. So where will he play? As a wing-back in the 3-5-2? If not then in a 4-3-3, maybe?

The conundrums keep coming. Van Gaal switched United from a traditional four-sentry defence to a three centre-back system to accommodate the attacking trident of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Mata. To tear this plan up after a summer-long bedding-in period and the season’s opening matches may confuse a squad Van Gaal is adamant requires three months to adjust to his methods, as the 63-year-old retrains them to use “brains” rather than instinct.

A glance at United’s competitors shows how all harbour midfield gold. Manchester City boast the A-lister Yaya Touré, plus Brazil’s World Cup player Fernandinho, as well as Frank Lampard and Fernando. The latter was a £12m summer bargain from Porto and precisely the ilk of midfielder United should be acquiring.

At Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers has a Premier League great, Steven Gerrard, supported by Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, Adam Lallana and Joe Allen, plus the potential of Emre Can. Chelsea have two gun midfielders in Cesc Fábregas and Nemanja Matic, who are complemented by Ramires and Mikel John Obi. And how Van Gaal might like to choose from Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Carzola, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini. Or even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who Arsène Wenger believes will one day be a deep-lying maestro “very similar to Steven Gerrard”.

Against Sunderland Van Persie and Rooney were starved of chances. Even Phil Jones hinted at the lack of creation. “We were dominant in possession and created glimmers of chances, but never really carved them open like we would have liked,” he said. “We need to keep working on everything.”

The hope is that the closing week of the window will prove to be a particularly long time in the club’s transfer fortunes. Juventus’s Arturo Vidal, Milan’s Nigel de Jong and Ajax’s Daley Blind, who is also a defender, are on Van Gaal’s radar. Any of these trio’s signature would strengthen midfield and transform hopes.

United would arrive at 2 September having ended the summer by adding Luke Shaw, Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Di María (assuming that he arrives) plus AN Other midfielder.

The continual line of players offering post-match promises to improve next time could then end. “We dropped two points today,” Van Persie said post-Sunderland. “We were a bit too sloppy in possession, and in that sense we made it too hard for ourselves. We’ve played two games and only picked up one point. We would have loved to have got six points but it didn’t happen, so we have to bounce back.”

• This article was amended on 29 August 2014. Because of an editing error, the names of Frank Lampard and Fernando appeared in the wrong order, leading to the implication that it was Lampard who was a £12m signing from Porto.

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Tiger Woods’s future unknown after missed cut at US PGA Championship


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “What next for Tiger Woods after missed cut at US PGA Championship?” was written by Ewan Murray at Valhalla, for The Observer on Saturday 9th August 2014 14.51 UTC

Where next for Tiger Woods? Never mind in a broad sense, quite literally the answer to that question is unknown. “I don’t know,” was Woods’s blunt answer when asked when and where he will appear next. The 38-year-old’s early exit from the US PGA Championship cannot be classed in any way as a surprise. Nor can the suggestion – and it was only that – from Woods that he will shut down in a competitive sense for an extended length of time.

As Woods talked of hitting the gym in an attempt to restore the core strength he believes lost through back injury, he was unable– or unwilling – to put a timeframe on his competitive return to golf.

There may be little option. Woods has failed to qualify for the forthcoming FedEx playoff series. He has no confirmed playing appearances for the remainder of 2014. Speculation has pointed towards him featuring at the inaugural America’s Golf Cup in Argentina in late October; there would be four million dollar reasons for the 14-times major winner to do so.

The issue of Woods’s participation or otherwise in the Ryder Cup remains a vexing one for the United States captain, Tom Watson. Someone with a sense of ambition – or mischief – and spare money to spend in an overseeing role at the forthcoming Italian or Welsh Open might want to contact Woods’s management to establish whether he can be coaxed into a brief appearance on the European Tour, in a final effort to prove his Gleneagles ambitions to Watson.

The Ryder Cup scenario need not be complicated. Woods has given quite enough to golf to be worthy of selection, should he declare both his fitness and commitment. The theory that he cares little for the biennial contest between his country and Europe has been offset by regular, strong statements that he wants to play in Scotland late next month.

The notion that Watson will come under commercial and political pressure to name Woods as a wildcard pick cannot be ignored. Ted Bishop, the PGA of America’s president, claimed only this week: “If you had an opportunity to put Tiger on that team, if he is healthy I would take my chances every time. If I am going to win or lose, I am going to do it with a guy like Tiger Woods on my team.”

There is a major fitness “if” in there, of course. Officially the worst season in Woods’s decorated professional career has a strong mitigating circumstance in the form of a back injury. At Valhalla, winces and limps proved far more common than Woods birdies.

“I need to get my glutes strong again, my abs and my core back to where I used to have them. They are just not quite there yet,” Woods said. “Obviously by playing, you can’t burn the candle at both ends. I need to get stronger physically and be back to where I was.

“It is certainly very frustrating any time you have to sit out because of surgery and to deal with the things I’ve had to deal with this year. It’s no fun. 2008 wasn’t a whole lot of fun, even though I won four times that year. It still wasn’t a whole lot of fun trying to play through that. Consequently, I missed nine months.”

Given that Woods famously won a major championship with a broken leg, the odds on him listening to advice that he should seek a similar recuperation stint this time are long. The growing sense, though, is that Woods is realising as much himself.

Notah Begay, the Golf Channel analyst closest to Woods, has made comments that shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. “This [missed cut] could be a blessing in disguise for Tiger Woods because now there is a forced layoff. We might not see him until his event in December, which might be a good thing and allow him to give some time for that back to repair itself. It might be something that he needs, which is a forced layoff.”

Begay’s co-pundit Frank Nobilo looked a little deeper. “For the first time in his career, he has to take stock,” Nobilo said. “His career has gone through so fast for us, 18 years of brilliance, and finally he is at a stumbling block. For the first time in his career, he is going to have to re-evaluate.”

When asked if he felt old when competing nowadays, Woods replied: “I felt old a long time ago.” He added: “It’s hard because you want the bigger muscles controlling the golf swing. I have got to rely on my hands to do it. The club face is rotating so fast through impact because I’m just not able to get my arms and the body in the correct spot.

“It [the back problem] throws everything off. I can’t get anywhere near the positions that I’m accustomed to getting to. I can’t do it. I’ve got to rely on timing, hands and hopefully I can time it just right.”

Woods’s issue is not merely physical. It is mentally tough for someone so accustomed to success to struggle in front of the watching world. There may even be an inner realisation from Woods that he will never scale golf’s greatest heights again. For now, there is a clear excuse for that: Woods should use it in downing tools for the rest of this year.

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