Manchester United are a team with needs. Positions of need, specifically.
The Red Devils currently sit fifth in the Premier League but they are five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and have passed up several chances to close that gap and really put pressure on the Blues for the final Champions League place. The reason why is simple: they can’t keep it up.
‘It,’ in this instance, being consistent performances against lesser-ranked teams. Man United’s record against the elite in the division is impeccable. They’ve drawn and lost to Arsenal, sure, but they’ve beaten Leicester, Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City whilst coming mighty close to beating Liverpool only to be held to a draw. To date they are the only side to take points off the runaway league leaders.
So what is Man United’s problem? Why can’t they keep it up? What is holding them back? Simply put, it’s the lack of quality in their team. The Red Devils have some truly outstanding talents to call upon, but also several glaring weak spots that neuter Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s ability to take them onto the next level.
So as we enter the January transfer window, they have multiple positions of need that must be filled. What are they? Why do they need filling? We had a look and ranked them in order of importance.
Man United need a left-back. Luke Shaw is just mediocre (he hasn’t been the same since his compound fracture in 2015) and Ashley Young is now too old to even be consistently reliable as a man-marking specialist. Brandon Williams has emerged as by far the best choice to start there even though he’s only 19-years-old and mostly a relentlessly confident battler rather than the second coming of Paolo Maldini.
But Man United still need someone, because they can’t be deploying Shaw in matches where they have to break opponents down. He’s just about passable when Man United are playing solely on the break and he doesn’t have to do too much beyond simply take up space, but when asked to help break an opponent down? Shaw is incapable of adding the width necessary to drag markers out thus creating lanes for Marcus Rashford to run into.
There’s also added strain he puts on Harry Maguire defensively because he’s positionally suspect and couldn’t mark a traffic cone. So whether Man United sign a solid veteran who can be relied upon to perform when young Williams needs a rest or is injured (like Young was a few years ago) or more callously a bonafide starter that pushes Williams down into a back-up role, they need to do something.
Man United’s front three can be pretty devastating in full-cry, but Daniel James is a one-dimensional prospect rather than an elite playmaker in the mould of, say, Jadon Sancho. The Welshman has proven capable of impressive feats of goalscoring and goal creating, performing in big games and little ones alike. But he can often be found wanting for sheer quality, which is fine really because he shouldn’t be starting.
Rashford and Anthony Martial, fair enough, they’ve got starter quality written all over them. Rashford on the left, Martial up-top. What Man United need is a right-winger of similar or even greater calibre. Someone who can create goals and score them, yes, but also someone who can carry the ball, who can dribble through opponents and conjure their own chances from very little.
With a player like that on the right, James would then become a two-sided back-up, a role he is absolutely perfect for. Coming on in the second halves of games against exhausted opponents and just murdering them with his sheer pace and ruthless attitude.
Man United famously chased Erling Haaland before losing out on the forward, but a striker would have been a misguided purchase for Man United if they are serious about the development of Mason Greenwood. The 18-year-old has scored eight times already this season and has a goalscoring instinct that no one else at the club can match. Put him where he can do damage (rather than out wide where he looks so awkward) and make sure Man United have an elite winger to stretch things. Five players for six starting spots would breed healthy competition and allow for plenty of rotation.
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2. Attacking midfield
Man United never really replaced Wayne Rooney.
To clarify, yes Man United replaced Rooney the no. 9 and Rooney the hard-working winger. They even replaced Rooney the mostly useless except for his running around and a few nice passes midfielder (hello, Andreas Pereira!) but they never replaced Rooney the no. 10. And before when they played 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 that wasn’t a problem, but Solskjaer plays 4-2-3-1.
Man United have alternated a whole mess of people at no. 10; mostly the aforementioned Pereira, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata. Of those three only Mata plays the right way (Lingard is a primarily defensive weapon) and Mata simply doesn’t have the consistency he used to. So often Man United get the ball into the final third against a side and quite honestly they just look clueless.
Unless Rashford is doing some one-vs-one brilliance down the left, Man United don’t have any reliable ‘moves’ that they can go to. Everything is off-the-cuff, which means its success rate is completely scattershot. That’s mostly down to the coach not being good enough, but so many teams can fake having a competent offensive structure by simply having an incredibly creative no. 10 to funnel attacks through.
Man United have created 31 big chances in the Premier League this season. That’s sixth. Sounds fair enough, until you realise that Chelsea have created 41, Leicester 44, Liverpool 54 and Man City 60. They’re way ahead (even Sheffield United have 37). Meanwhile, Man United have just one more big chance created than Burnley and Everton and just two more than the hapless Spurs who have been yo-yo’ing all over the place with their deployment of Christian Eriksen.
A creative no. 10 would do wonders for the Red Devils. Obviously the caveat here is that Paul Pogba could probably thrive here but the Frenchman’s injury issues have severely limited his impact on the first-team and it would be remarkable if he stayed at the club beyond the summer window, so Man United need to plan for the long-term here and get a creator to knit their attack together.
1. Defensive midfield
Man United have a lot of midfielders. Unfortunately they all play basically the same role in the team, that of a box-to-box midfielder (or a no. 8). Paul Pogba is an 8. Fred is an 8. Scott McTominay is an 8. Nemanja Matic is an 8. Pereira is an 8. James Garner is an 8. Dylan Levitt is a 6 (aka a defensive midfielder) but he’s young and injured right now so not a reliable option.
Man United need a proper defensive midfielder. They have done for years ever since Michael Carrick’s decline set in. They bluffed it at times with Ander Herrera, but without the Spaniard they really have no options. McTominay and Matic can play there as enforcers but their shoddy passing really hurts Man United when they’re trying to build attacks against teams that sit behind the ball.
The pattern to all of these signings (well, maybe not right-wing) is that Man United need them to break down weaker opponents who seek to stifle them. But an elite defensive midfielder would also help Man United in big games, or games where opponents press them. Basically there’s no situation that can’t be improved by having a proper defensive midfielder.
Man United need someone who can screen defence, who has the mobility to get about the pitch and make tackles, but someone who can receive the ball, turn away (from pressure, if it’s there) and fire a pass through to the attackers quickly and efficiently to put the side on the front-foot. But also they need someone who can slow a game down if that’s what Man United need to do.
A defensive midfielder is the Red Devils‘ highest priority signing because it would help them in the most matches and unlike every other transfer need they have no conceivable temporary workaround. If this need goes unaddressed then Man United will never move the ball quick enough to be a genuinely consistent threat to teams that sit back and defend deep (which is going to be most of them).