After a summer of hope has come a slow start to the season. We take a look at why midfield is an area that is in desperate need of reinforcing.
The signs in the pre-season pointed towards the right direction. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had embarked on a rebuild job to not just get Manchester United back on track, but also restore their identity that had gone missing in the last half-a-decade, or so.
However, the start to the 2019-20 season has some people questioning whether the Red Devils are prodding down the path that has been taken in the last few years again. While such suggestions would be rather premature, there is one issue that has arisen due to the decisions taken in the summer transfer window.
Solskjaer chose not to add any player to his midfield department this summer, putting his faith in the crop of players he already had at his disposal while also hoping to blood in some of the youngsters who have shown promise at different age group levels. We reckon that is a problem that could rear its ugly head in the season to come.
An Imprudent Decision
So far, Solskjaer has stayed true to his words by being ruthless in showing the door to players who were either not good enough or were not fully committed to his cause. Some, like Nemanja Matic, curiously remain in the squad, although it is clear that the Serb is also being phased out.
But, among the players who have left Manchester United in 2019 are Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera. The jury is out on whether the duo had the required quality to be the solutions for United this season. But, it can hardly be denied that their departures have left the Premier League giants shortchanged, seeing as the quantity forgone was not replenished.
Solskjaer’s current options for the three midfield slots in his team are Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Matic and Fred. Meanwhile, James Garner and Angel Gomes would be those in line to grow into their roles in the Manchester United first-team setup this season.
While McTominay and Pogba are shoe-ins for any lineup that is named by the Manchester United boss these days, the options beyond them scream of mediocrity, if nothing else. Matic is past his best, and has been so for well over a year. Lingard brings very little to the table beyond his pressing abilities, while Pereira has shown himself to be nothing more than a mere squad player.
Mata does not quite fit into Solskjaer’s high intensity style of play. But, in Mata, Solskjaer has someone who showed against Southampton last weekend that Manchester United missed a trick by not adding to their creative options in the summer window gone by. Add to it the fact that defensive acumen is a quality sorely missing from their midfield and it’s no wonder that United have struggled in the said department on the field.
Indeed, as things stand, Pogba is, more often than not, the only player in the Manchester United squad who can boss a midfield battle, despite his tendency to be too extravagant at times. Even McTominay, for all his qualities that have endeared him to the manager, has his shortcomings as well.
The Scotsman’s lack of positional awareness has meant that the Manchester United defence has come under a lot of pressure so far this season. While McTominay makes up for much of it with his energy and high work ethic, the basics are still not covered, leading to wide open spaces that United’s opponents can brutally exploit.
Pogba, on the other hand, blows hot and cold when it comes to contributing on the defensive front. The evidence points towards the midfield double pivot of McTominay and Pogba being trusted for now, even though it is a work in progress.
But, with a lack of quality beyond the first-choice duo, it is clear that bolstering midfield should be at the top of the priority list when Manchester United make further additions to the squad. We now take a look at three players who should be targeted by Manchester United, either in January or next summer.
Adding more defensive nous in the middle of the park is clearly the need of the hour for Manchester United. And, West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice fits the profile of player they seem to be targeting under Solskjaer.
Rice was infamously involved in the “Will he? Won’t he?” saga before he decided to represent England in senior international football, despite spending his youth footballing days with the Republic of Ireland. That, in itself, tells a lot about the player.
Young, full of potential and already a star in his own right, Rice has displayed composure and maturity beyond his young age. Adding him to the squad would invariably free Pogba from his defensive responsibilities, even though the Frenchman has arguably fulfilled those duties quite well so far.
Rice’s presence in the Manchester United midfield would also allow McTominay to reprise a role he is better suited for – being the workhorse of the team as a box-to-box midfielder. At an intrinsic level, the 20-year-old would fit well in the style of play that Solskjaer has employed.
Rice tends to break-up play efficiently before recycling the ball quickly to release pressure. This trait would help Manchester United initiate quick counters, going from defence to attack in no time, especially with the pacy forwards at Solskjaer’s disposal.
Rice also comes across as a player who is supremely confident in his abilities while also having a stable head on his shoulders. In a recent interview, the West Ham star has claimed that he is good enough to play for Manchester United but is in the right place at the moment to hone his skills.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve got the ability to play for a club like that. But it’s all about the timing, and I don’t think the timing is right for me at all. I’ve still got so much to learn. I’m loving it at West Ham. The connection between me and the supporters is special. I’ve become one of the fans’ favourites and the manager likes me. It’s the best place for me to play my football.”
All the signs point towards the right direction. If Manchester United do decide to add more steel to their midfield, Declan Rice ought to be one of the first in line to be considered for a switch to Old Trafford.
One of the key points that Solskjaer has laid emphasis on with his team selection over this year is the fact that his players should be comfortable in reprising various roles. To that end, a player like Fabian Ruiz is someone who should be on their radars.
A midfielder who came through the ranks at Real Betis, Ruiz has taken his game to the next level at Napoli, where he has benefited from the trust that Carlo Ancelotti has shown in him. In fact, he left such a lasting impression on his manager from his early days at San Paolo, that he ended up usurping a Napoli legend – Marek Hamsik – in the process.
Ruiz has credited Barcelona and Spain great Xavi for influencing him and his style of play. And, it definitely reflects in the way he goes about his game on the pitch, showing great intelligence while moving his team forward as well as loads of tactical awareness.
As far as Manchester United are concerned, signing a player like Ruiz would help them add to their creative options, taking a lot of burden off of Pogba. This is key as the Red Devils are often seen to be bereft of options in the scenario that Pogba is contained or is playing poorly.
To that end, adding a genuine playmaker like Ruiz would be a major step in the right direction for Manchester United. But, most importantly, the fact that young Spaniard can fit seamlessly in just about every midfield role should pique United’s interest.
Not only can he play as a No. 10, but he is also capable of slotting into the double pivot and use his energy to good effect on the defensive front. And, he can also reprise the No. 8 role, giving Solskjaer the flexibility if he chooses to revert to the 4-3-3.
All in all, Ruiz is a player who has what it takes to be the solution to Manchester United’s creative woes in the middle of the park as well as the final third. And, with the player inching closer to his peak years, the time is right for the Red Devils to pounce on the opportunity.
In case Manchester United choose not to get someone versatile and target a player who would fit in the No. 10 role, taking the English route once again could serve them well. And, this player is someone who is reportedly already on their radar. We are talking about James Maddison.
In what was his first full season in the Premier League last term, Maddison was nothing short of impressive. In fact, the young midfielder was the only Premier League player to breach the 100 chances barrier in 2018-19 – the first Englishman to do so since Leighton Baines in 2012-13.
Maddison has started the current season on a solid note as well, providing the assists for two of the six goals that Leicester City have scored so far. While his decision making leaves a lot to be desired at times – Maddison has the tendency being too extravagant sometimes (remind you of someone?) – there is no denying the fact that he is one of the best creative forces in the Premier League.
Coming back to the lack of versatility, there is a notion that Maddison is a strict number 10. But, Brendan Rodgers has used him as a No. 8 as well as a winger. In those positions, Maddison has shown that he is a work in progress, but he has not looked entirely uncomfortable in the said positions either.
So, while Maddison would be best suited in the No. 10 role in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1, he could be used in other ways as well, should the situation demand that. Most importantly, however, the Manchester United manager would have a creative No. 10 who is also adept at pressing aggressively, thereby alleviating the need for someone like Lingard, who for all his energy, lacks the creative nous to be the first-choice number 10 for a team like United.
By the time the summer arrives in 2020, Maddison will getting close to his 24th birthday while also having completed two full Premier League seasons; just the perfect time for him to take the next step in his career and join a Manchester United side where he could become a core member of a squad that would be striving for big things.
There is no denying the fact that the midfield department bears a very hollow look at Manchester United at the present moment. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to get rid of the remaining deadwood in this area, which would open up the slots for at least one midfield reinforcement, if not two, while also retaining space for Angel Gomes and James Garner to make a case for themselves.
Declan Rice, Fabian Ruiz and James Maddison are ideal targets who do not just fit into the profile of player Manchester United have targeted but would also complete the midfield unit with their arrival. Whether the Red Devils do go that way or not, remains to be seen.