Manchester United’s Midfield Problems
Jadon Sancho: “Fabulous, World-Class”, Raphael Varane: “Rolls-Royce of a defender, has won it all”, a new midfielder: “Ole will stick with McFred.” Following a brilliant start to the campaign against Leeds, Manchester United’s weekend performance against Southampton served as a stark reminder of the team’s gaping holes going into the season.
Boasting a remarkable attack and an opulent defensive line, the Red Devils’ midfield, once again, failed at convincing the many admirers of the club. In a game that saw them fail to dominate the midfield, the manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, seemed rather intransigent to change his approach. Though the club have been heavily linked to several defensive midfielders throughout the summer window, the manager’s repeated failure to address the limitations, and yet, continue to be risk-averse has cost the club several valuable points since his appointment in 2018.
Though Solskjær has resuscitated the club’s ambitions following an underwhelming period since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United are yet to find consistency and re-establish their intimidating presence on the pitch. The arrivals of Sancho and Varane are reflective of the manager’s ambitions for the future, however, the lack of a commanding midfield has the potential to haunt United’s prospects going into the season.
The Problem: Dissolving McFred
A contentious topic within United’s fan base, the discourse surrounding United’s midfield duo comprising Scott McTominay and Fred is reflective of the squad’s conundrum in the position. Though the duo possesses exceptional individual attributes, their repeated failure to impose their dominance and adjust to change has been an ephemeral problem for the manager.
Adopting a 4-2-3-1 formation, Solskjær’s problem lies in the midfield, and his reluctance to change and adopt a ruthless approach has made a lightning rod for the team’s performances on the pitch. While ‘McFred’ provide the defensive stability, United’s midfield pivot is technically unconvincing and fails to progress the ball further up the pitch. Further, the lack of a young, tenacious, and positionally aware defensive midfielder adds to the manager’s woes in the position.
While the club have recruited world-class talents in indispensable positions, the midfield remains United’s Achilles heal. With Nemanja Matic into his mid-30’s and both, McTominay and Fred are unnatural options for the defensive midfield role. Solskjær does have options on the bench, however, the lack of a specialist CDM can only impede the club’s ambitions this season.
The Solution: Donny Van De Beek
Provided he gets his opportunities the Dutch midfielder may prove to be United’s midfield solution. However, considering his incomprehensible treatment by the manager, the Dutchman looks far from being the solution. In hindsight, Van De Beek possesses every attribute to address United’s midfield problems.
While ‘McFred’ lack the intelligence and technical ability to dominate the midfield, the Dutch international boasts the exuberance and technical potency demanded of a midfielder. Paired with Matic adopting the defensive role, Van De Beek displayed promising performances in pre-season, however, failing to make an appearance in each of United’s first two Premier League games this season.
A graduate of the Ajax academy and the club marquee signing last summer, his mistreatment by Solskjær’s and limited appearances throughout last season, raised many eyebrows within the fan base. Provided he finds a place in the starting line-up, Van De Beek may be the solution to the ‘McFred’ situation. Nevertheless, given the recent treatment by the manager, at present, the Dutchman seems far down the pecking order than expected.
Midfield Targets: Rice, Camavinga, Saul…
Having signed Varane and Sancho, a deal for a midfielder seemed inevitable at the end of July. However, with only a week left in the summer window, the club’s options are diminishing amidst renewed hoped for a surprising arrival in the coming days. According to reports, United are interested in recruiting a midfielder, however, a significant arrival is subject to funds raised through selling players.
West Ham’s Declan Rice is tailored made for United’s midfielder, however, a £100mn price tag has averted prospective buyers. At 18 years of age, Eduardo Camavinga brings bags of potential and is amongst the most lucrative prospects in Europe. The youngster is set to leave his parent club but is weighing up his options going into the final days of the window. Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez offers the most realistic option, with the club keen on accepting a loan deal. Lastly, Ruben Neves may also be a potential solution provided United fail to acquire their preferred targets.
While all of the aforementioned are potential solutions to the midfield, the responsibility lies on Solskjær to integrate new signings and rethink his approach. Having recruited relatively excellent talents this summer, the acquisition of a midfielder has the potential to change United’s fortune this season. An excruciating 1-1 draw against the Saints provided an emblematic display of the squad’s weaknesses, however, given the time and solutions on hand, a change in approach may not be far from expected.