Who can Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer look to add to his side this summer to complement Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary run at Manchester United was defined by creativity, flair, resilience, and solidity in the midfield.
Equally as iconic as their deified manager were the United midfielders that personified these traits. Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, and Michael Carrick were some of the primary architects behind an unparalleled sustained period of success for the Red Devils.
If a finger is to be pointed to a specific area where things have gone wrong following SAF’s departure from the club, the midfield is a good place to start.
Midfield recruitment has been disjointed and unorganized as managers have come and gone throughout the last seven years.
Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes will be hoping to rectify these missteps, but first, let’s take a look back at where it all went wrong.
Moyes and Van Gaal’s Mistakes
For David Moyes, Marouane Fellaini was the sole summer addition to a squad that had just won the title. This proved costly, as the former Evertonian failed to establish himself as a starter and United plummeted down the table. Although he did have some big moments as a super-sub for United, his signing can be considered a failure.
Moyes’ second and final signing was the panic buy of creative midfielder Juan Mata in January. Mata was more of a successful purchase, though he would go on to also divide opinion throughout his United career as he never again reached the level of his first two years at Chelsea.
Louis Van Gaal faced similar frustrations in trying to rebuild United’s midfield into one that could challenge for a title, though not for a want of trying. He broke the British transfer record on Real Madrid creator Angel Di Maria.
The former Madridista ended up being nothing short of a flop in Manchester, departing for PSG after just one season.
Other midfield signings Morgan Schneiderlein and Bastian Schweinsteiger had similar levels of ineffectiveness and also departed the club following LVG’s sacking. The exception was Ander Herrera, who proved a useful workhorse during his five-year tenure at the club.
It was not until Jose Mourinho was appointed as United manager that United found themselves a truly world-class midfielder. Mourinho broke the world transfer record to rectify Sir Alex’s often quoted “greatest mistake” and bring Paul Pogba back.
The Frenchman left United as a youngster and went on to become one of the most talented midfielders in football. His sheer athleticism and size mixed with ridiculous technical quality on the ball make him a unique midfielder that can do it all.
Pogba has arguably become a victim of his own success at United.
His world-class ability means fans and pundits alike set unrealistic expectations in which they seem to expect him to do the job of three midfielders in one.
Paul Pogba vs. Sheffield United [field rank at time of being subbed off]:
5 successful take-ons [1st]
4 chances created [1st]
Special. 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/IUEF9Pthmr
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) June 24, 2020
The disjointedness of United’s midfield transfers have often left him without a proper role as part of a midfield unit.
When he inevitably can’t carry the full weight of the midfield on his shoulders, he falls under heavy criticism.
It’s true that he hasn’t achieved what he could’ve at the club so far due to injuries and other factors. But there is no question that United are a better team with Pogba in midfield than without him.
You only have to look back as far as January of this year to see that the systemic problems United have had in midfield since SAF’s departure are still around, especially when Pogba doesn’t feature.
Away at the Emirates, United midfielders Fred, Scott McTominay, and Nemanja Matic were completely overrun by a young Gunners midfield of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, who cost far less in the transfer market.
Not only did they fail to protect their back four, but creativity in passing was also basically nonexistent. This was pointed out by former United players Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie in conversation for BT Sport.
On a day where United strikers Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial got no service at all from the midfield, Van Persie reminisced on a conversation from 2012 with Ferguson: “He [Ferguson] literally said to Scholesy, Carrick, Shinji [Kagawa], and Wayne [Rooney], if you cannot find him [Van Persie], you will not play.”
Ferdinand added about the current crop in midfield: “United players today were not looking forward for the runs…for a striker, that’s demoralizing.”
Arrival of Fernandes
Current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t take long to address the creativity problem.
In January, he made arguably United’s most important signing since Pogba himself. He splashed the cash to bring in Portuguese playmaker Bruno Fernandes, who has not so much hit the ground running as flying in a United shirt thus far.
He’s given United what they’ve lacked for so many years, arguably since Scholes’ departure.
He’s a player who can unlock a defence at any given moment as well as score or assist from anywhere in the final third. With Pogba and Fernandes, United finally have the makings of a midfield unit that can challenge for a league title.
It does, however, remain to be seen who can establish themselves alongside those two as a third midfielder to bring stability and solidity in that midfield. United’s already shaky defence may not benefit from two midfield players who love to create and get on the ball.
But with the quality that Pogba and Fernandes possess, it’s a must to get them in the same team if United are to mount their first true title challenge since the departure of their iconic manager.
Will Solskjaer look to bring in another midfielder to complement them? Or is the man for the job already at the club? We’ll analyze midfielders United may look to to complete their midfield and how their various skill sets could potentially complement the world class talents of Pogba and Fernandes.
If United want a truly world class holding midfield talent with room to grow to fit alongside their two playmakers, they should look no further than Italian midfielder Sandro Tonali. Dubbed by many as the “next Andrea Pirlo” due to his passing and set play ability, the Brescia man has already established himself as one of the most sought after midfielders in Europe at just 20 years of age.
United may have their work cut out for themselves to secure his signature, though. Many of Europe’s elite clubs have already made their interest known, most notably Inter Milan.
Playing as Brescia’s deepest lying midfielder, he cracks the top ten in Serie A for assists and key passes. That’s a huge achievement when you consider Brescia’s struggle to score goals and compete with the top sides in Italy. He is also incredibly press resistant, a key attribute for any Premier League midfielder in the modern day; His pass accuracy only drops a single percentage when he comes under pressure.
These traits would fit like a glove in a team like United, who struggle to break down low block sides. Defensively, he leaves a bit to be desired, as his ball recovery numbers aren’t great for a team that plays a lot without the ball. However, with a six foot frame and more natural athletic ability than Pirlo, he can grow into a defensive role.
His best position would likely be in a 4-2-3-1 system alongside Pogba, where they could take turns carrying the ball up the pitch and covering for one another, rather than the sole holding midfielder in a 4-3-3, where his still-developing defensive and physical qualities might be exposed on the counter attack while Pogba and Fernandes push forward.
Declan Rice, West Ham’s young starlet holding midfielder, has often been linked with moves to a bigger Premier League club. Those rumours will be set to increase dramatically should the Hammers drop out of the English top flight this season. If they are to avoid the drop, Rice will surely be a key factor in their survival.
At just twenty-one years old, he’s already a vital cog in the midfield for WHU. You could even argue he’s been their best player this season. Not only has he played every single available minute throughout the league campaign, but he’s also first in tackles and second in interceptions amongst all players in the division.
Stylistically, Rice is a prototypical modern defensive midfielder. He’s the type of player that the England national team are so desperate to have in their squad. Think Jordan Henderson with slightly less raw athleticism but a higher ceiling for technical ability. His defensive work rate and ability to win the ball back make him a prime candidate to hold for Pogba and Fernandes should Solskjaer choose to deploy a 4-3-3.
Meanwhile, his strong dribbling and ball retention qualities will allow him to be heavily involved in build up play and grow into a regular role in United’s midfield. Whoever secures his signature will have to pay a premium to secure a young, English, Premier League proven talent. However, United might snap at the chance to sign him on a bargain deal should West Ham get relegated.
It’s not often that a genuinely world class midfielder becomes available on the transfer market. However, Thomas Partey seems to be one of the exceptions. The Atletico Madrid powerhouse is rumoured to be seeking a new challenge after five successful seasons in the Spanish capital. Rivals Arsenal have been heavily linked with a move to trigger his surprisingly affordable release clause of 45 million pounds.
However, with European football looking unlikely to return to the red half of North London next season, United could hijack a deal for Partey, especially if they have Champions League football to offer. His qualities will be sure to have every big club on high alert. You only have to look as far back as Atletico’s conquering of reigning Champions League winners Liverpool to see what Partey brings to the table.
Put simply, Partey is a midfielder that can do virtually anything you ask of him. He has been a key member of Diego Simeone’s relentless Atletico sides in recent years. Often playing as their deepest lying midfielder, he still creates at a high rate, cracking the top 8 in La Liga for through balls and passes into the final third.
His athleticism and stamina allow him to press from deep and dominate weaker midfielders. He also has an eye for goal and ability to strike a ball from distance.
Capable of playing as both a defensive midfielder or box to box, Partey would be an absolute dream addition for Solskjaer this summer. However, there’s no doubt that he’ll face stiff competition from other top clubs. A midfield of Partey, Pogba, and Fernandes would, on paper, be one of the finest central midfield units in Europe.
Fred, United’s big money midfield signing from 2018, has taken some time to adapt. But although his consistency still remains patchy, his performance level has increased dramatically in quality from this season to last.
The 27-year-old Brazilian has been United’s most used midfielder this season, starting 23 of their first 26 league matches. He doesn’t often play as the anchorman in a midfield three. Rather, he prefers to roam around the midfield and break up play than sit deep, waiting for the counter-attack.
Although his ball recovery and pressing stats are strong, he’s limited defensively by his 5’7” frame. More physically imposing midfields can limit his impact on a game.
This season, Fred has been dribbled past 2.93 times per game, much more than the other midfielders on this list. He simply doesn’t have the makings of a traditional defensive midfielder. Deploying him in that position would require a high defensive work rate from both Pogba and Fernandes to give a midfield of those three any chance at protecting United’s defensive line.
There’s no denying that Fred is a useful player to have in the squad; his energy, nose for the ball, and technical qualities are all strong enough for a solid Premier League midfielder. However, his inability to fit with Pogba and Fernandes in a midfield three means Ole should look elsewhere.
Instilled in Manchester United is a history of bringing youth through the academy and into the Old Trafford lights. One of the latest players to break through the youth ranks and into the first team is midfielder Scott McTominay. The Scottish International was first given a chance by Jose Mourinho back in 2017.
Standing at 6’4” and blessed with incredible running power, his ability as an athlete has forced him into the Red Devils setup, where he has recently signed to remain until 2025. Solskjaer will no doubt have high hopes for McTominay. As a United man himself, he’d surely love to see an academy prospect flourishing at the club.
At the age of 23, McTominay is still somewhat raw technically. However, his passing and ball retention have improved as he’s become a more prominent first team figure. McTominay has been deployed both as a defensive and box to box midfielder by Solskjaer this season.
Ole will surely try to experiment with a McTominay-Pogba-Bruno midfield before the season ends. He looks to be the man at the club most likely claim a regular starting position alongside those two.
His physicality makes him the ideal candidate to shield the back four while the other two push upfield and create. McTominay still has to prove that he can claim a starting spot in a team capable of challenging for trophies. But under Ole’s guidance, he could develop into the perfect man to complete the midfield alongside Pogba and Fernandes.