Man U's midfield unfairly maligned

Michael Carrick & Co. have been far more productive than most realize

Originally Published: February 9, 2012
By Albert Larcada | ESPN Insider
Michael CarrickRichard Heathcote/Getty ImagesMichael Carrick has been an underrated reason for United's success this season.

One of soccer's great rivalries kicks off again on Saturday as Liverpool faces Manchester United at Old Trafford (7:45 a.m., ESPN2, ESPNDeportes, The matchup features the two most successful clubs in English history, with United winning the most all-time titles and Liverpool right behind. The two teams drew in league play earlier this season, but Liverpool knocked the Red Devils out of the FA Cup just two weeks ago.

A key storyline all season for United has been the play of its midfield. The general perception is that United is strong at the back with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic (that is, before Vidic was lost for the season) and strong at the front with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Chicharito and Danny Welbeck, but weak in between. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson has even bought into this, experimenting with a number of formations this season. He played Rooney in a central midfield role during a Champions League match earlier in the year and called longtime ally Paul Scholes out of retirement to help with the perceived midfield woes.

The numbers, however, don't necessarily agree with the public perception. A number of United midfielders are having good, if not superb, seasons offensively and defensively. As a team, United is completing 243 passes per game from the middle-third of the field this season, up 5 percent from last season. On the defensive side, United is averaging a league-high 6.5 tackles per game in the middle-third, up from 4.9 last season.

Perhaps the biggest reason why it's natural to assume United's midfield has fallen is all of the injuries. Perennial first-teamer Anderson as well as newcomers Ashley Young and Tom Cleverly have all had the injury bug hit this season.

Here is a look at the key players who have stepped up, or are expected to once they return from injury:

Albert Larcada is an Analytics Specialist in ESPN's Stats & Information group. Among other analytics projects, he maintains, advances and writes about ESPN's Soccer Power Index (SPI) algorithm.