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Kobbie Mainoo’s message to Declan Rice tells Erik ten Hag what he needs to change in Man United’s midfield



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Credit: Man Utd/England

Manchester United midfielder Kobbie Mainoo had a conversation with Declan Rice before he was awarded Man of the Match on his full England debut and Erik ten Hag needs to listen to it.

Mainoo, 18, was awarded with his first England call-up last week after originally being snubbed by Gareth Southgate. The United midfielder has starred for Ten Hag’s side during his breakthrough campaign.

With just 20 appearances for the first team at Old Trafford this term, Mainoo also became the third-youngest United player to start a game for the Three Lions behind Marcus Rashford and Duncan Edwards.

His performances against Brazil and Belgium, as well as his training levels at St George’s Park, have put him right in the conversation for a place at Euro 2024.

Kobbie Mainoo’s England conversation with Declan Rice

Before the game against Belgium, where Mainoo was chosen as England’s Man of the Match, Declan Rice detailed an interesting conversation he had with United’s talented midfielder.

The Arsenal man was asked about the midfield trio of him, Mainoo and Jude Bellingham, “I actually think it [the midfield] will be the perfect balance,” he said.

“We’ve been training really well together. We [him and Mainoo] had a little conversation yesterday about playing really close to each other, keeping the ball, because that’s the type of player he is.

“He wants to keep the ball in tight spaces. Wants to pass the ball. Having someone like that next to you who’s on the same wavelength always helps.

“He’s 18 years old; it’s his first start, he’s going to have a massive career, let’s just let him enjoy the night.”

Why Erik ten Hag needs to listen to this

Ten Hag deserves a lot of credit for the way that he has handled Mainoo’s development so far, but there needs to be additional changes – especially in the midfield – to allow the teenager to thrive even more at Old Trafford.

As Rice mentioned, the spacing between those midfielders can be important to the way that Mainoo likes to play. He is incredibly press-resistant and can drive with the ball at his feet, but he also excels with close combinations with teammates.

That was on display when Mainoo skipped past two Belgium players in the middle on Tuesday evening before having a clear pass to Bellingham between the lines.

At United, however, there are sometimes issues with the midfield’s setup. Casemiro and Scott McTominay are not always confident in tight situations, and so there is not often the ideal spacing in the middle that Rice mentioned.

Meanwhile, Bruno Fernandes often lacks the patience to hold his positions between the lines to receive such passes from Mainoo.

Those close connections in midfield also help players like Mainoo get onto the ball more often. We’ve seen too many games in recent months where the talented midfielder has not seen enough of the ball.

If Mainoo is to reach his incredible potential at Old Trafford, the Reds must make the correct adjustments as a team – and particularly as a midfield unit.