ARTICLES Opinion

Manchester United’s exciting attack and solid defence is making the problematic midfield stand out

Acquisitions of Raphaël Varane and Jadon Sancho has strengthened Manchester United’s defence and attack respectively. The World Cup winning centre-back is undoubtedly an upgrade on Victor Lindelöf at right centre-back, and will be a great partner for Harry Maguire, as explained here.

Meanwhile, a long-awaiting transfer from Borussia Dortmund has allowed Sancho to bolster the United frontline and plug the hole which has been on the right-wing for a number of years at Old Trafford. He joins the likes of Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to create a real dangerous attacking force.

He told BT Sport after signing: “I see what Bruno was doing, I see what Marcus [Rashford] was doing, Greenwood and Cavani. To add more goals and assists to that is exciting.”

It’s exciting at the front and solid at the back, so where’s the problem?

You guessed it! Smack bang in the middle, and it was evident throughout United’s 1-1 draw to Southampton on the weekend.

It was only eight days after a perfect opening day smashing of Leeds United at Old Trafford when all Reds supporters were brought back down to earth with a substandard display at the Saint Mary’s Stadium which saw Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side drop two points.

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While there was some rustiness in the defence — with Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire having uncharacteristically poor performances — the problems in the middle of midfield were more prominent for all to see.

With the manager starting Scott McTominay on the bench due to a knock which limited him to a maximum 30 minutes of game-time on the south coast, the central options almost chose themselves. Fred and Nemanja Matic were the two obvious remaining options to start in the midfield, with James Garner heading on loan to Nottingham Forest to hone his skills and Donny van de Beek not quite being suitable to playing in the midfield pivot. Although some would argue that the Dutchman’s first-half showing in the middle alongside Matic in the final friendly match against Everton shown that he deserved a chance next to the Serbian, but it would’ve been a risk in a Premier League fixture nonetheless.

However, United’s no.17 and no.31 both had underwhelming games in the centre of midfield. It was a reminder to many fans that additions in that area of the park should’ve perhaps been focused on ahead of a central defender.

Fred can be a really useful player for United and has been at points throughout the last two seasons. He is one of the best pressing centre-midfielders in the division and can offer some great progression through his passes for the Reds. However, his inconsistencies in his performances are too often and the midfielder will sometimes have matches with very low pass completion rates.

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This is caused by his erratic technique, which can lead to poor execution in his passing. The Brazilian will usually be looking to make the right passes to help progress the play for United, which does make him an asset, but as the primary midfielder? Maybe not.

Fred could be very useful next to another solid progressor in the middle and that does sound just like Nemanja Matic, but unfortunately I think we’re three years too late. The former Chelsea midfielder might’ve looked impressive in pre-season, but the doubts about whether he can still deal with the intensity of the top level were heightened after a very slow-moving showing on Sunday.

Matic can still passes through the lines when he has space on the ball but as shown against Southampton, he is unable to screen the backline like he used to and is also dubious against any sort of press, with an extreme reliance on his left foot and without the strength that he had in previous years.

Against The Saints, Fred and Matic averaged pass accuracies of 75% and 76% respectively. It’s almost impossible to sustain pressure and gain territory against opponents with two midfielders losing the ball so frequently. United do not only need a solid progressor in the centre, but they need that someone to be able to circulate the ball consistently.

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While there is certainly question marks on the build-up on the right hand side of United’s defence, with neither Varane or Aaron Wan-Bissaka being gifted progressors, the midfield pivot is in desperate need of a quality addition to improve the team.

Even if you are of the opinion that McTominay and Fred can be a good enough midfield partnership for The Reds, the only valid options as replacements for the two of them are Van de Beek and Matic – who both are complete stylistic opposites to the McFred partnership. Paul Pogba could be played there on occasion but it’s clear to see where he’s better off when playing for United…and that’s on the “left-wing” (in BIG quotation marks).

So you’d assume that with any injuries or fatigue to either McTominay or Fred (which already has happened to the former just two games into the season) would mean that United would have to operate with an aging Matic or Van de Beek , who’s still an unknown entity in the deeper areas of midfield. They need help.

Ideally, United could bring in a world class defensive midfielder who would propel them to Premier League or Champions League glory. Yet, there aren’t any of those on the market, so they’ll have to go a different route.

Going for a younger player who could become that world class midfielder is (probably) the best idea. There has been noises of Declan Rice, however a large price tag and an exciting project at West Ham will probably mean that he’s not attainable in the last week of the transfer window. Meanwhile, Eduardo Camavinga is another top class talent who could turn into a brilliant midfielder in years to come, but at just 18-years-old and intensions to play for PSG or in Spain, there’s doubts whether he’ll even consider the United move.

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Ruben Neves is one of the two most likely to make the move.. The Wolves midfielder wouldn’t cost astronomical amounts and is also 24-years-old and an important member of a Premier League side, Whether or not his playstyle would translate into a United side which is clearly different to the team that he’s been playing in under Nuno Espírito Santo at the Molineux Stadium is unclear, but it seems to be United’s best option at this current moment in time.

The other option that is seeming increasingly likely as of today is Saúl Ñíguez from Atletico Madrid. The 26-year-old midfielder is reportedly looking for a move to the Premier League and it’s looking like United are interested, alongside Chelsea. The Spanish player could possibly join on a loan deal, which would give Solskjær a stop-gab before trying to attain an ideal midfielder next summer.

They could of course go for a more obscure name such as Aurélien Tchouaméni from Monaco, but reports from Fabrizio Romano claim that United aren’t currently working to sign the 20-year-old and The Reds aren’t usually the ones to grab talented youth at the source when looking to make first-team additions (although have been impressive in this regard for their academy).

When missing out on Jadon Sancho last season, Ole Gunnar Solskjær bit the bullet and went with Mason Greenwood, Daniel James and (sometimes) Marcus Rashford as options on the right-wing for the season instead of getting another option in. He didn’t bring in Ousmane Dembélé or someone else, he waited a year for the winger that he wanted. Will he do the same for a midfielder?

Hopefully not.

It’s a much more pressing issue in the centre of midfield and there is genuine expectations that United need to challenge for the title and win trophies. In order to do so a midfielder is basically a must.

When everyone’s fully fit Solskjær has a frightening attack and a very solid defence, but an uninspiring midfield. There are now just seven days to fix that – let’s hope they do it.

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