How does Sir Alex Ferguson solve a problem like Owen Hargreaves? How does Fabio Capello solve a problem like Owen Hargreaves? How does Owen Hargreaves solve a problem like Owen Hargreaves? How do the many doctors almost constantly operating on him at any given time solve Owen Hargreaves’ problems? They’re all annoyingly complicated questions. Hargreaves isn’t a Rooney or a Ronaldo, or a Lampard or a Gerrard but he is and has been a vitally important part of both the Manchester United and England squads, and the longer his injury problems persist, the less likely it looks like the problem will be solved by Owen Hargreaves.
Owen’s come along way from the day he was booed for England by virtue of no one knowing who the hell he was. Sven Goran Eriksson was the first manager to notice the value he brought to an English team and it’s a trend of admiration that has continued in Sir Alex Ferguson’s patience and Fabio Capello’s, statements that he hopes to include Hargreaves in his World Cup squad if fit. A possessor of fantastically Germanic penalty taking abilities and hair, he proved in both the 2006 World Cup and United’s double winning season of 07/08 that the tenacious yet sensible qualities he possesses as both a defensive midfielder and a covering right sided midfielder/defender are ones both United and England are currently poorer without.
However his propensity to be permanently injured and the subsequent consequences of that are a big worry for Ferguson. Sir Alex has said recently that while he’s recovered physically for the most part, his largest obstacle is his mental state. Playing again at the top level after such a long time out is evidently worrying curly locks and this might quite plausibly mean that he’ll never be the same player again, even if he does fully recover from his long suffering tendinitis. He’s been removed from United’s knock out Champions League squad despite being initially scheduled to return against Milan, and now looks very doubtful for the World Cup.
So what should Ferguson do? Well, at 29 it’s unlikely Hargreaves will peak upon his eventual, possibly even fictional return. Whatever the state of his knees and head, Fergie should look to replace him, even if only with a younger model he can groom whilst still playing himself. United have a few players who are capable of carrying out several of his roles but none that perform his function. Anderson is too much of a forward player and prefers thumping long ambitious balls into peoples feet as hard as he can rather than the cut out-quick release technique. Carrick can do it, but can’t tackle or hustle. Fletcher is becoming a box to box player, he’d be wasted just sitting in the Makelele position.
United aren’t a little weak in midfield this year because they don’t have enough cover, they’re a little weak because they have too much cover, and it’s all in little bits. Like a magic amulet divided into pieces, or a bit like Captain Planet. Instead of the magic Ronaldo, they have Nani, Valencia and Obertan. All capable of little bits of Ronaldo magic. Instead of a replacement for the magic Scholes, they have Fletcher, Carrick, Gibson and Anderson, all capable of bits of Scholes. It’d be better if they just had two whole amulets. With Hargreaves it’s much the same, on a diminished scale. Hargreaves can always be depended upon to do a job, his job, and to take a penalty like a German if need be. What United need is a truly world class midfielder who’s always in the team and always does his job. Hargreaves might not be Scholes, or even Beckham, but he’s the best Owen Hargreaves type player there is, and rather than try and collect lots of little pieces of Owen Hargreaves (which ironically is probably the state he’ll be in by the time United do find a replacement) they need to find another whole player who can do that job consistently well. Like Owen Hargreaves can.