Grafter Hargreaves can rein in Ferguson’s conservatism

May 20 2007

Owen Hargreaves - Old Trafford-bound?Manchester United’s season finished less than twenty-four hours ago, and already Alex Ferguson appears to be on the verge of sealing the long-expected signing of Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich for a fee believed to be in the region of £18 million.

The notion of Hargreaves joining United for such a fee would have provoked derision a year ago, but such were his performances in the World Cup that his reputation as England’s most accomplished defensive midfielder is now secure.

His arrival will obviously add graft and industriousness to United’s midfield, but it might also paradoxically make them stronger in attack.

In too many big games this season (most notably in the away leg of the Champions League semi-final against AC Milan and in yesterday’s FA Cup Final) Ferguson has allowed his natural tendency to attack to be overcome by caution. Thus, in both games, he fielded a solid 4-3-3, rather than the more attack-focused 4-2-3-1 that has enabled United to play such insistently thrilling football this season.

Anyone wondering who to blame for the dreariness of yesterday’s game need look no further than the fact there were no less than six central midfielders on the pitch. In mirroring Mourinho’s formation, Ferguson allowed United to get dragged into a midfield wall of attrition.

In signing Hargreaves, Ferguson hopes to create an English interpretation of the silk-and-steel Andrea Pirlo-Gennaro Gattuso midfield partnership that laid the foundation for Italy’s World Cup success last summer and continues to prosper for AC Milan.

Where all this leaves Paul Scholes is another matter entirely, but with Hargreaves and Carrick sitting in front of the back four, Ferguson will be less inclined to field an extra pair of legs in midfield, as he did with Darren Fletcher in the aforementioned games against Milan and Chelsea.

All of which should mean a space in the team for a proper centre forward, allowing United to stretch the game and giving Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs the space that allows them to function most effectively; the space Ferguson denied them yesterday by electing to go toe-to-toe with Mourinho, rather than relying on his team’s attacking instincts.

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