Assessing Manchester United’s current midfield options

Life under Ralf Rangnick has not got off to the start many Manchester United fans dreamed it would. Despite having what people might call an ‘easy’ run of fixtures, United have picked up three wins, two draws and, most recently, a defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In Rangnick’s first game, against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, it was clear to see, in the first half an hour of the game, his high-intensity gegenpressing philosophy in action. Since then, however, United struggled to find that kind of energetic pressing, apart from fleeting moments in some games.

A key element to Rangnick’s preferred formation, the 4-2-2-2, are the two number sixes, the deeper lying midfielders. Currently, United seem short of players in that position. This is not ideal, because, at times during the season, it will be important to rotate who plays there, considering the high levels of intensive pressing required. Fatigue could certainly play a part in the long-term if the same few midfielders play a lot of games in a system like this.

Here is a look at United’s three main options in the double pivot: Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Fred.

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Scott McTominay

25-year-old Scott McTominay has started every game in the Premier League under Rangnick so far. He performed exceptionally well against Burnley in December, getting himself on the scoresheet with a long-range effort. He also scored the only goal in United’s third-round FA Cup victory against Aston Villa.

However, The Scotsman’s performances this season have been somewhat up and down. At times, he has shown just how good he can be, and yet, he has not performed to this high standard on other occasions.

One interesting part of McTominay’s game is his progressive passing. When looking at his stats from a United perspective this season, he ranks fifth highest for the average amount of progressive passes by midfielders (Premier League only), with 4.13, as per FBRef; both Matic and Fred are ahead of him.

When looking at the whole of the Premier League, he ranks 52nd out of midfielders, for players who have played 90 minutes at least twice. Whilst his progressive output is still decent, he isn’t necessarily producing the numbers United need when trying to play line-breaking passes frequently, and just generally progressing the ball forward enough. In contrast, Ruben Neves, a player who United have been linked to in the past, progresses the ball 4.75 times on average per 90 minutes (fbref).

It should be noted that some players from both United and across the whole league may not be included, due to not having played enough minutes. Whilst McTominay’s progression numbers aren’t exactly where they could be, he has still shown at times during his United career his ability to play some excellent passes.

One other area of McTominay’s game that can sometimes lack quality is his number of successful pressures, a key aspect of playing under Rangnick. Just 24.6 per cent of McTominay’s pressure are successful, and whilst this is only slightly lower than Fred, he doesn’t necessarily get around the pitch as well as Fred, in such a way that is important when pressing.

With that being said, McTominay can, and often does, use his physicality to his advantage. He often puts himself about, and whilst he doesn’t win every tackle he attempts, he can still frustrate opposition players with some crunching tackles.

McTominay is an excellent option for Rangnick’s squad, and the German seems to highly rate him. If the Scotland international can add a level of consistency to his game, and perform more regularly as he did against Burnley, where he put in a man-of-the-match performance, he could become an important player in the future.

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Nemanja Matic

Nemanja Matic has been with United for four and a half seasons. At 33 years old, he is realistically past his best but still gives United a good squad option. In the last two games, Matic has partnered up with McTominay as one of the two sixes.

Although age is against Matic, he is still good defensively, and has, at times this season, been brought on to add an extra body to United’s defence. In all competitions, the midfielder has won 15 of his 19 tackles, as well as making 16 blocks and 15 interceptions. This is in around 500 fewer minutes than both Fred and McTominay; Matic has certainly put up some decent defensive numbers this season, despite having less game time.

The biggest concern with Matic is his ability to quickly counter press when United lose the ball. Naturally, Matic has lost some pace as he has got older, something that tends to happen to most players. Rangnick’s pressing system requires players to win the ball back in a quick press just seconds after winning the ball, which, at times, is something Matic might struggle with, due to his natural loss of pace.

Despite this potential issue for Matic, some stats suggest otherwise. Out of the three players included on this list, he has the second-highest percentage of successful pressures this season for United, with 31.7 per cent successful pressures. This is, however, a small sample size compared to other players, something which should certainly be considered.

Although Matic is still a squad good player for United, offering experience to younger players around him, and some level-headedness on the pitch, he isn’t the answer to the midfield issues in the long term.

Unfortunately, Matic is not getting any younger, and he may soon be at the point of his career where a move away from United is necessary, to get regular game time. Matic is a good option for the time being, but, realistically United should be looking to bring in a replacement for him either in January or in the summer.

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Brazil midfielder Fred was one player pinpointed to thrive under Rangnick. A high-octane player, Fred is someone who rarely seems to tire.

Fred showed during the Champions League game away to Villarreal in November just how valuable he can be when pressing the opposition. He forced a turnover in possession which led to Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal. His excellent pressure on Etienne Capoue led the Frenchman to gift the Portugal captain the ball; Ronaldo, of course, was never going to miss.

This is a great example of what Fred can bring to United under Rangnick. He is someone who, under a structured gegenpressing system, such as what Rangnick is trying to implement, could flourish, despite not having the best stats when it comes to pressing.

When his team is pressing, Rangnick likes his players to overload the man in possession of the ball, creating a two against one situation. Fred, alongside another player, could be ideal in a scenario like this, because of how quickly he can pressure a player and win back the ball.  

At times, Fred’s passing can let him down. In all competitions this season, Fred has completed 84.1 per cent of passes attempted; in comparison, Matic has completed 86 per cent and McTominay 85.7. He can be sloppy at times, often misplacing simple passes, or trying to play long balls over the top which don’t always come off.

Even though Fred’s energetic pressing suits Rangnick’s system so well, his occasional inability to retain possession when passing can let United down, especially when they are trying to get forward as quickly as possible after winning the ball back.

Having said that, Fred no doubt has an important role to play under Rangnick. His involvement in Ronaldo’s goal against Villarreal is a hint of what he can offer, and, if utilised in the right way, Fred could become invaluable between now and the end of the season.

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United desperately need to strengthen their midfield area. Considering Paul Pogba has not played for a few months due to injury, and Donny van de Beek seems out of favour, a lot of responsibility falls on McTominay, Matic and Fred in the number six roles. Even with Pogba and Van de Beek included, playing as a six is arguably not their best position.

With the January transfer window well underway, it seems like the perfect time for United to add to their midfield. Some high-class players being linked with the club in the last few days, and whilst they obviously would not solve every issue in the squad, it would certainly go a long way to helping improve the midfield quality and depth that Rangnick can select.   

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