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Athletes give way to aesthetes at United

Sir Alex Ferguson seems to like pinning his colours to the corner of the unappreciated. The Manchester United manager's contrary streak has come to the fore on the club's pre-season tour. Not for the first time, he has defended the Glazers, despite the evidence United would have rather more spending power but for the debts they lumped on the club. Less controversially and more instructively, he has also described Michael Carrick as "the key player" in his midfield.

The fanfare can be rare where Carrick is concerned. Go back 18 months and Ferguson's decision to award him a new contract bemused many. After a season where his standards had slipped, his admirers at Old Trafford were a diminishing band. Even last year, after a campaign where he rivalled Antonio Valencia for the title of United's outstanding player, Carrick remained an acquired taste. He is too unflashy, too unassuming, too sedate for many people's taste. He rarely catches the eye or makes the headlines.

Yet Carrick is significant for not just who he is, but what he is: a passer rather than a tackler, a man who has come to represent the new look of the United midfield. Speaking in South Africa, Ferguson suggested the age of the ball-winner is over. "In the modern day game, you don't need tacklers the same way you used to," he said. "There's no call for it. It's about anticipation and reading the game."

It certainly is in the United midfield. Their three classiest operators in the centre are noted for their footballing intelligence: Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. While the Welshman's pace was long the dominant feature of his game and he remains remarkably agile for a 38 year old, each is now a technical talent, not a physical power. United look to out-pass, not out-run, opponents.

And it marks a shift in the job description. For the first half of Ferguson's reign, athleticism was essential in the centre of midfield. So, it seemed, was an overbearing personality. This was the era of Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Roy Keane, the time of the midfield warrior. While, as he aged, the Irishman abandoned some of his driving runs and used his footballing brain more in a switch from box-to-box to holding midfielder, he remained a forceful presence.

To put it another way, he was a defensive midfielder. Carrick and, in his dotage, Scholes are deep-lying, but defensive? No. They are essentially constructive, not destructive players. Carrick is not the new Keane, and not just because he lacks the caustic wit or the volcanic temper. Since the former captain's typically dramatic exit in 2005, it has become a regular complaint that Ferguson has not replaced him.

The more surprising element, perhaps, is that he has not sought to. The recent recruit Shinji Kagawa and the target Lucas Moura are altogether more progressive. When the Japan international was bought from Dortmund last month, he became the first central midfielder to cost United a fee since 2007. The previous one they signed was Scholes, when he returned from retirement. Because he and Giggs cannot play every game, a mix-and-match policy has become entrenched, rotation at its swiftest in the centre of the pitch.

But along the way, the more defensive-minded players have fallen by the wayside, the athletes giving way to the aesthetes. Owen Hargreaves went from all-action midfielder to no action, Darren Fletcher from an energetic minder to the old-timers to a man who may retire before any of them. Anderson flatters to deceive, his absences ever longer and his career approaching a crossroads. Paul Pogba decamped to Juventus without testing the theory he could have become a first choice.

The focus on retaining, rather than regaining, possession is ever more acute. United cannot press at pace with Carrick and Scholes. And yet, while every Spanish success or instance of Barcelona brilliance reiterates that passing has become the game's premier philosophy, they appear out of step with their rivals. They have no equivalent of Lucas Leiva, Scott Parker, Nigel de Jong or John Obi Mikel; their holding players have a greater passing range but a lesser capacity to hassle and harry.

And they have no Yaya Toure. Ferguson cited Carrick alongside Toure as the Premier League's finest in their position, also mentioning Luka Modric and Steven Gerrard. To some, that is wishful thinking. Carrick is among the best of a certain type, Toure a player with the widest range of attributes.

If goal difference - and Sergio Aguero's injury-time intervention in the season's final moments - made Manchester City champions last season, the fundamental difference between the rivals was Toure. Ji-Sung Park's desperate, yet ineffectual, attempts to nullify the Ivorian in April's derby was proof United had no answer to him and, lacking a fully-fit Fletcher, Ferguson has no one capable of stopping Toure, let alone emulating him. Both enforcer and enabler, a sprinter, long-distance runner and a footballer, he was the division's best all-round midfielder. That he was also the best paid is a reminder that the Glazers' impact on United ought to be impossible to ignore.

In no position has a reluctance to spend been as apparent as in the middle of midfield. Even such offers as have been made, as last summer's interest in Wesley Sneijder shows, have been for attack-minded players. Ferguson argued that current refereeing renders tackling almost impossible. Yet halting opposition by legal methods is not and, as both Toure and Barcelona have displayed in their meetings with United, that involves more than anticipating, intercepting and reading the game.

To the surprise of some and the frustration of many, the defensive midfielder seems a dying breed at Old Trafford. The difficulties of unearthing a new Keane are obvious, Ferguson's seeming lack of interest more inexplicable. Because key as Carrick is and great as Giggs and Scholes remain, there are times when United require a reminder of the veterans' old team-mates; if not a new Keane, then at least another Nicky Butt.

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