ARTICLES Opinion

Assessing “Out-of-the-box” defensive midfielders Manchester United could sign this summer

Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane will transform Manchester United’s attack and defense. However, the midfield still feels like it is missing a key piece and most importantly the defensive midfield spot. United’s current options, Fred or Scott McTominay, are effective enough in the position but they are mainly used as a double pivot and an aging Nemanja Matic, who seems to be less relied upon due to his severe decline in his physical attributes, doesn’t seem to be a player who can come in and perform at a consistent standard anymore. If United are determined to win trophies this season, then they must go and invest in the right player.

With West Ham United‘s reported £100 million valuations of Declan Rice considered too high for United and the attainability of a Eduardo Camavinga seeming unrealistic due to the players’ desire to play in Spain, it seems Manchester United are going to have to think smarter when it comes to acquiring a defensive midfielder this summer. I’m going to take a look at more obscure options who it may be worth gambling on.

Marcelo Brozović – Inter Milan

Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has the experience and desire United need after coming off a title-winning season in Italy. Brozović made 37 appearances for Inter this season, with the majority coming within Conte’s 3-5-2 formation, contributing with 2 goals and 6 assists from a defensive midfield position.

Composed in possession, the Croatian can link play throughout the thirds, altering the point of attack with his accurate passing and spatial awareness. Brozović also poses a threat from long range and is an aggressive tackler out of possession. Last season he had the seventh-highest number of touches in Serie A of all players, which shows his importance on the ball to Inter play. There is a progression in Brozovic play as he averages a progressive passing distance of 387 yards per 90.

Brozović completes an average of 11.92 long passes per game, placing him in the top 3%, and ranks in the top 4% for total passing distance and progressive passing distance. This forward-thinking in Brozović’s passing will give United a new dimension in our midfield – a more ball-dominant midfielder who will ability on the ball will come crucial when United face opposition who implement a deeper block to combat United’s counter-attacking threat.

With contract talks between Inter and Brozović progressing but nothing concrete yet, there is an opportunity for United to get a cut-price for a player who is entering his peak years.

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Leandro Paredes – PSG

Leandro Paredes has endured a complicated time with Paris Saint-Germain, as the previous manager Thomas Tuchel and the current Mauricio Pochettino have both prefered Idrissa Gueye and Danilo Pereira respectively. However, the 27-year-old player’s turnaround this season has to come to no surprise to few who knew of his evident quality, but it’s being his growth in the defensive midfield position that has caught the eye.

Paredes uses the orientation of his body a lot to feint the opponent and find complex passing angles. The Argentinian is very available to build the game. He’s a deep-lying playmaker, who loves to organize the game and dictate the tempo. We often see him dropping deep between the two central defenders to organize the build-up play. Just like Brozović, his technical ability is what United are crying out for in midfield. Paredes decides the flow of the game, whether he delays or plays fast forward. His nonchalance also makes him unpredictable because at any moment he is capable of a laser pass that breaks several lines.

His technique of passing with short run-up also allows him to have a high speed of execution in his movements. He averages a tremendous 7.08 progressive passes per 90, which is significantly better than the United pair of Scott McTominay (4.56) and Fred (5.64) this shows by combining his close control and dribbling allows him to shift the ball quickly. The former Zenith player makes an average of 7.08 progressive passes per 90 minutes and this shows his real impact in build-up play. He takes responsibility and brings the ball into dangerous areas for the opposing team.

A different option in midfield who can progress the ball without having to go to the obvious players (like Paul Pogba or Bruno Fernandes) when trying to break down teams who operate low block systems would be a huge improvement for United, as it relives some of the creative burdens off United’s number 6 and 18.

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Teun Koopmeiners – AZ Alkmaar

A personal favourite of mine. A player who Ole Gunnar Solskjær had a first-hand view of when United played AZ Alkmaar in 2019 of the Europa League group stages. He was impressive then and he’s continued to show his excellent performances in the Eredivisie and Europe. The AZ Alkmaar captain’s improvement as a player has been vital to his clubs’ rise in Dutch football – Last season, AZ was level on points at the top of the table with a brilliant Ajax side before the league was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Koopmeiners averages 66.5 touches per 90 minutes, ranking him fifth in the division, but he’s not just good in possession. Koopmeiners ranks third for passes per 90 minutes with 83.2. These stats are a numerical representation of Koopmeiners the orchestrator of AZ’s build-up play. His strength in both areas makes him a rarity and a much-coveted player in a modern game based on possession and passing. Koopmeiners is currently completing 7.1 long balls per 90 with a 55% long ball accuracy.

The 22-year-old has a sublime ability on the ball – this distribution would allow United to build quickly from deep and have a player who can help enhance the speed of United’s counter-attack. Koopmeiners typically slots between the center backs or slightly ahead of them during the build-up – this could be a vital tendency that would help allow Harry Maguire have the licence to go on his marauding runs that progress the ball further forward, knowing he has the cover behind him. The 23-year-old midfielder is also a major threat on penalties and set-pieces, having scored 15 goals in the Eredivisie during the 2020/21 season.

A reported move to Atalanta is at a sticking point with the deal still yet to be agreed. Previously he looked set on signing for Atalanta but now this is looking more and more unlikely. He would be a fantastic signing for Manchester United, especially with an £18m price tag. It would be an absolute bargain for a player of his quality and potential and also the right kind of character Ole wants in the squad with the leadership qualities to watch. 

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It’s expected to be a big upcoming season for Manchester United and with the arrival of Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane, there is a feeling of optimism that United can finally put a sustained title challenge and get closer to rivals Manchester City, but the acquisition of a defensive midfielder could transform the way United play and potentially see Ole Gunnar Solskjær take a more attacking approach. 

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