After Manchester United left Anfield on Sunday with a fortunate 2-1 win Ryan Giggs said: "It's always tough, especially against a team like Liverpool who keep the ball well. Even when they go down to 10 men, they don't change. The crowd got up and we didn't play well. We didn't keep the ball well enough."
The Welshman's assessment crystallised the problem area that continues to puzzle United followers: central midfield. If retaining possession is an 11-man discipline the key contributors are those who move between defence and attack to set the side's rhythm and start and, ideally, help finish attacks.
United lack a natural performer who is at ease in either penalty area and with the drive to carry him and the team forward. This "hole" can be traced back to Roy Keane's departure in 2005. Previously United's success had been based on a central pair who bossed opponents and team-mates around. Bryan Robson, Keane, Paul Ince, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes embodied Sir Alex Ferguson's belief that harnessing a pair of box-to-box midfielders was the path to control and trophies.
In an interview with The Observer last year Scholes said: "I always feel that, if you've got two in midfield and one goes forward, the other one stays; it's as simple as that. That's the way we played for a long time" – but not in recent campaigns.
In a squad packed with attackers – Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernández and Shinji Kagawa – and the wingers, Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, United have seven midfielders of whom only one, Anderson, has the inclination and stamina to surge forward.
Ferguson's full retinue in this department consists of Giggs, Scholes, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Darren Fletcher (when fully fit) and Nick Powell. Of these the fine careers of Giggs and Scholes are turning to winter, Anderson is halfway through a decade at the club and is yet to impress consistently, Cleverley, at 23, is still only potential, Fletcher's long-term career is in doubt due to illness and Powell, 18, has eight minutes of senior United football on his CV.
In the five Premier League games this season Scholes, Carrick, Cleverley, Giggs and Anderson have made the most appearances in what is usually the midfield two in Ferguson's 4-2-3-1.
This quintet have managed only one goal (from Scholes), have yet to create any of the other 11 scored and only Carrick has completed the full 450 minutes of league action, which illustrates Ferguson's need to juggle his options here.
Since Keane left seven years ago the manager can point to four league titles, one Fifa Club World Cup, three League Cups, one Champions League and two more final appearances.
Last season's campaign was also just a late, final-day Sergio Agüero goal away from a 20th championship and United currently lie in second place, only a point behind Chelsea. But a sense remains that the midfield gets ever more creaky. Giggs, Scholes and Carrick are in their thirties, with the former two 38 and 37 respectively. In that 2011 interview Scholes was speaking at the beginning of his retirement. There was no hint that he would return at the start of this year, welcomed back by Ferguson who assessed his options and decided Scholes's craft and experience were still required.
Ferguson is not the keenest buyer of players in the new year transfer window. But a theory runs that, if United continue to struggle as they did at Liverpool, where the contest largely bypassed Giggs who started ahead of Cleverley and Anderson, then the manager may consider buying reinforcements in January.
A roll-call of the central operators who might have joined United recently include Yaya Touré, Luka Modric, Javi Martinez, Cheick Tioté and Moussa Dembélé.
None did, with the situation vacant in the Ferguson midfield made more intriguing when comparisons are made with the rich resources enjoyed by other members of this year's expected top four.
At Arsenal a recovering Jack Wilshere faces a fight with Santi Carzola, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby to become the side's pivot once again. Chelsea have flexibility in Oscar, Ramires, Oriol Romeu, Frank Lampard and Mikel John Obi, while Manchester City can turn to Touré, Javi García, James Milner, Gareth Barry, Jack Rodwell, Samir Nasri and David Silva, an engine room to take on any opposition.
In the second game of the season Dembélé offered a perfect audition at Old Trafford when he dominated despite United beating Fulham 3-2. With six days left until the summer window closed the Belgian, 25, could have been bought by United for his £15m release clause. Instead Tottenham Hotspur took him to north London.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Andrea Sartorati