During the final stages of the match against Everton last week, Manchester United fielded a midfield three of Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, and Bruno Fernandes. One goal down and with a top 4 spot in the balance, United finished the game with arguably the most unbalanced midfield trio in the history of the club. Injury to Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic‘s inability to play the full 90 are the reasons they are in this situation. Nevertheless, one has to wonder why a club of United’s stature are operating with a midfield seriously lacking in numbers and quality.
According to reports from James Ducker from The Telegraph, United are in the market for two accomplished, high energy midfielders this summer. Meanwhile, according to Jonathan Northcroft from The Sunday Times, prospective new manager Erik ten Hag is keen to alter United’s squad profile by bringing in young players with speed, energy and the ability to press. Ducker reported that United have identified Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Ruben Neves, and John McGinn as potential signings. In this article, I will assess each players and how they fit Ten Hag’s plans.
Since debuting for West Ham at the age of 17, Declan Rice has caught the eye of many. At age 20, he captained West Ham for the first time. At only 23 years of age, he is a key player for England’s National Team.
Aggressive, good in the air, good at tackling, it’s not a surprise that Rice is wanted by many top clubs at the moment. His signature skill set is progressing the ball forward with his carrying. Blessed with excellent athleticism, it’s hard to stop him when he’s on the go. With 7.01 progressive carries per 90, he ranks among the top 4% of players in this category. He also averaged 2.75 interceptions per 90, ranking among the top 6% of players in the category. This show’s Rice’s defensive prowess. Interestingly, he also has a solid 90.1% pass completion per 90. United could do with this, since it’s widely known that their current starting DM has had problems in that area.
In terms of his profile, Rice fits Ten Hag’s criteria of young players with energy. However, his specific role in midfield remains to be seen. His progressive carries makes Rice a solid box-to-box option, while his interceptions and coolness in possession could make him a great deeper, ball-winning midfielder. At just 23, the new manager has all the time in the world to mould Rice into the profile deemed necessary.Embed from Getty Images
Next on the list, the man famously dubbed as the Yorkshire Pirlo by Leeds United fans. Born and bred in Leeds, Kalvin Phillips is an academy graduate and made his debut at the age of 20.
Initially a box-to-box midfielder, Phillips was converted into a defensive midfielder under the tutelage of one Marcelo Bielsa. His ascension to the level he’s currently in is quite remarkable. After helping Leeds get promoted to the Premier League, Phillips made his debut for the England national team.
In less than a year, he became a starter in midfield alongside Declan Rice at Euro 2020. In terms of stats, Phillips’ defensive numbers are far superior from other names on the list. He averaged 30.5 pressures per 90, meaning he’s in the top 1% of players in that category. He’s also in the top 2% with 2.59 blocks per 90 and in the top 7% with 3.45 tackles per 90.
The idea of having Phillips coexist in the same midfield with United’s pressing machine in Fred is mouth-watering to say the least. Phillips would fit seamlessly with Ten Hag’s counter pressing style. The biggest obstacle to this deal is, of course, the fact that he plays for United’s arch rivals. It’s hard to imagine Leeds shipping one of their own to the Theatre of Dreams. But then again, history could repeat itself.Embed from Getty Images
The prodigy from Portugal made the headlines when he became the youngest player to start as captain in the Champions League at 18 years old. Several big clubs reportedly enquired for him but Jorge Mendes brought him to Wolverhampton Wanderers as they embarked on their famous Portuguese Revolution.
During his five year stay at the Molineux, Neves is most famously known for scoring plenty of screamers from outside the box. United’s midfield have been missing this threat from range since the days of the great Paul Scholes.
Looking deeper into his numbers, Neves excels the most in his passing. He boasts 67.82 passes per 90, among the top 13% in the category while having a 83.1% pass completion rate. He is also good at taking set pieces, an area United players have been poor at this season. Although not a high level presser like Phillips, he could still press adequately.
It’s easy to see how he fits into Ten Hag’s plans. His Ajax team is known for switching the ball quickly from side to side to create openings for the attackers. Neves’ superb passing skill could be very useful in this scheme.Embed from Getty Images
Rounding out the list is Aston Villa’s midfield dynamo, John McGinn. Having started his career at St Mirren and Hibernian, McGinn was subject to genuine interest from Celtic. After three offers were rejected by Hibernian, McGinn made the move to Aston Villa. Scoring the goal that confirmed Villa’s return to the Premier League, McGinn became a fan favorite and a key player under Dean Smith.
McGinn has the energy to cover the pitch, operating more like a box-to-box midfielder. His stats going forward are quite impressive. He’s in the 89th percentile with 1.53 key passes per 90, the 90th percentile with 1.42 passes into the penalty area per 90, and 97th percentile in crosses into the penalty area. He’s 27 years old so the age profile might not suit Ten Hag’s vision, however the tactical fit is clearly there.
McGinn was usually deployed on the right side of Villa’s midfield in a 4-3-3 formation, a system that’s also used by Ten Hag at Ajax. Ajax players under Ten Hag are also known to rotate and switch positions freely. McGinn’s mobility could be a real asset for this style of play.Embed from Getty Images