Erik ten Hag’s current midfield plan at Manchester United is not a solution he wants to truly turn a corner at Old Trafford.
The Reds are not in a good place. This season, positives have come few and far between, and when they have appeared, a disaster has often followed shortly afterwards.
Victory against Chelsea last Wednesday looked different as there was a level of control and confidence in the play of Ten Hag’s side. Three days later, they were embarrassed 3-0 by Bournemouth at Old Trafford.
Forwards have not been firing, and the defence is not exuding confidence. Yet, it has been the midfield which has looked the most worrying all season.
When the club signed Mason Mount in the summer, the idea of adding the former Chelsea man to a midfield with Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes was something many United fans were excited about.
Currently, two of those three are out injured, and they weren’t lighting up the show when they were fit either. Adding to that, the likes of Kobbie Mainoo, Sofyan Amrabat, and Christian Eriksen have all had extended spells out of action too.
Now, Scott McTominay has started ten games in a row for the Old Trafford side and is currently the top goalscorer at the club.
He’s essentially saving points with his contributions in the box, but there’s a larger problem that is being highlighted by the role the midfielder is playing.
Ten Hag seems to have identified that McTominay’s goalscoring threat is one that United could use, and he’s looking to get the Scotsman to crash the penalty box as much as possible.
That can work – like against Chelsea – but it also leaves ample space in the midfield for teams to take advantage of – like against Bournemouth.
McTominay should not take the blame as he’s performing the role expected of him and doing pretty well in most circumstances in terms of delivering those moments in the box, yet Ten Hag must realise that he needs to adjust in order to improve things in the middle of the park.
United’s deeper controllers – Kobbie Mainoo and Sofyan Amrabat – have struggled in games where they’ve often been left on their own in the middle. Perhaps a full-back tries to tuck inside and provide support at times, but their midfield partner is not usually seen, and if he is, that is not the area of the pitch where he is most comfortable.
Mainoo and Amrabat have yet to start a game together, and the pairing could provide that extra defensive cover out of possession as well as a stronger base for build-up.
There is the question about where the goals come from then, but currently, this team is too inconsistent, and that is largely because of their midfield. If they manage to plug the holes and start to control more football matches, then the other things can come along more easily.
With news emerging this week that Casemiro is back on the grass training, United need to start adjusting to a style where the Brazilian can come in and play to a similar level as he did last season.
That won’t happen if he replaces McTominay as the ‘box-crasher’ even though he’ll likely get goals. The amount of ground coverage would be too much for a 31-year-old who has been showing signs that he can no longer do that work and still be defensively excellent.
Instead, playing Casemiro alongside either Mainoo or Amrabat in a midfield pivot with more emphasis on stability defensively could help.
With big games coming up soon, Ten Hag can’t count on McTominay’s magic in the box to stop United being run all over in midfield. Especially against the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich.
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