If Manchester United losing at home to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was worrying, then the state of their midfield by the end of that match might have been something by which to be even more concerned.
That result, which makes it three consecutive losses for Man United, consisted of a midfield massively different to that of the side which won the six games beforehand.
With Michael Carrick in defensive midfield, Ander Herrera in a slightly more advanced box-to-box role and Marouane Fellaini in a combative target-man type position, Louis van Gaal found the balance has craved all season in that six game winning run.
However, the loss of Carrick has demonstrated why there might yet be great need for Man United to further invest in their midfield ranks.
After defeating Manchester City 4-2 in April, the last of six consecutive wins, Carrick was injured. Three consecutive defeats followed in which Wayne Rooney, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera have all been shifted into Carrick’s influential role.
For a variety of reasons, those positional changes have disrupted the balance of the midfield and the team as a whole.
In defeats to Chelsea and Everton, Wayne Rooney and Daley Blind respectively have failed to show the same levels of effectiveness in defensive midfield as Carrick and have both performed better in other positions.
In the defeat to West Brom, however, Ander Herrera’s presence in defensive midfield highlighted another problem.
Whilst the need to replace Carrick seems to be an accepted issue amongst most Man United fans, the absence of Herrera in a more advanced midfield role underlined the need for greater competition in that area.
Without Herrera in his usual more attacking box-to-box role, Man United looked to lack some drive and creativity from central midfield and the bench was devoid of options to replace that. Instead, van Gaal reverted to pragmatism and deployed Rooney and Robin van Persie in deeper midfield roles.
The fact that neither of Fellaini or Dí Maria, both of whom may have had a better understanding of the central midfield position. could be trusted by van Gaal proves that this area too may be in need of new faces this summer.
What is of greater concern is the current lack of options in the squad as a whole to replace or match Herrera’s abilities in midfield. An unlikely return to the first-team for Nick Powell or Tom Cleverley, or the introduction of one of the club’s U21s players seems like the only option at present for next season, should only one new midfielder arrive.
With European Football almost certain for next season, whether that be in the Champions League or Europa League, there will be greater need for Man United to rotate their squad with an increased number of games.
Man United’s main transfer targets have recently been mooted as a right-back, central-defender and a winger, though the importance of the defensive midfielder in the current system might suggest that that position is currently more important to invest in.
Herrera’s quality in midfield when playing in front of Carrick cannot be ignored either. Should the Spaniard become injured or unavailable, Man United lack an obvious replacement for him in their current squad. That is proven by the fans’ frustration at his continued absence from the side earlier this season, when Wayne Rooney was often deployed instead.
Therefore, Man United’s midfield would certainly be better placed for a packed schedule next season with more than one addition in that area this summer. At present, Blind is the only natural option to replace Carrick in the side but has often been required to instead play at left-back, whilst there is seemingly no player currently capable of replicating of what Herrera provides for the team.
All this is assuming that Marouane Fellaini, a limited player who has seen his strengths well exposed recently, will retain the remaining position in the three man midfield. Such upheaval seems unlikely, but might Man United need as many as three new central midfielders to realistically challenge for next season’s title?