Manchester United’s midfield isn’t very good.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched The Red Devils this season, or even last season. Their attack is potent and on its day can cause tremendous damage, and the defence now has two pillars they can build around thanks to this summer’s transfer activity.
The one area United didn’t address, however, was arguably the one that needed more attention than any other: midfield. United’s midfield is quite simply not fit for purpose. They have one genuinely great player in Paul Pogba, one talent with potential in Fred, and the rest is a mishmash of alright prospect and just downright bad. The club has young James Garner coming through, but at 18 he can’t be relied on.
Now rumours have begun to swirl that the big bosses at Old Trafford have realised this, and are set to try and rectify things in the January transfer window. That’s admirable if you forget about the fact that they had all summer to rectify things and completely failed. Still, better late than never, eh? The only issue is, given that this is January, just who can United actually pick up?
They are well-stocked at the no. 8 position because Paul Pogba exists and is amazing. Should he go down, Fred should be able to slot into that role as a competent back-up. It’s clear Solskjaer doesn’t want to pair the Brazilian with the Frenchman in order to avoid United’s midfield becoming too permeable, but the latter should get minutes as a back-up.
So that leaves defensive midfield and attack midfield, or the 6 and the 10. Who could fill those roles? We have a look and come up with a dream and realistic option for each position. Who’s in where? Read on and find out!
Dream: Declan Rice
Manchester United are desperate for Declan Rice, now an established international, and would love him to take up position at the base of midfield. This makes sense for a number of reasons: Rice is good in the air, he’s a decent passer of the ball (he’s not Frenkie de Jong or anything but he can keep it moving neatly) and he’s a tenacious tackler.
He would be an instant upgrade over Scott McTominay in the role and would actually allow the Scot to play further forward as his natural skill-set would indicate he probably should. Rice would bring a sense of authority to midfield despite being just 20. Theoretically he could offer a decade of service to the Red Devils and would be such a secure player next to Pogba’s mercurial instincts.
But West Ham have money now, and a bit of standing. Moreover Manchester United have lost standing, so if they came for Rice, would they have the pull they used to? The Hammers would certainly insist on a colossal transfer fee well in excess of the fee Ajax received for Frenkie de Jong (£67m) and for a January transfer that is awfully spicy.
Realistic: Sean Longstaff
United’s other (or perhaps first-choice) option to play defensive midfielder is Geordie Sean Longstaff. Now the youngster has nowhere near the experience of Rice, having played just half a campaign with the Magpies last season. Still, in that time he managed to impress basically everyone. Michael Carrick in particular seems keen to bring him in and mentor him.
You can see the similarities between Longstaff and Carrick, what with the comfort in using both feet and always seeming to have time on the ball. United are looking for someone to protect the defence and Longstaff certainly has the frame and mentality to do that, but the potential for him to grow into a passing pivot is obvious.
“You can sometimes get distracted by the outside noise and maybe for a little bit in the summer I was a bit,” Longstaff said in regards to the United interest this summer. Moreover, unlike with Rice this move is more realistic as Newcastle have allegedly already named their price. United found £50m too steep in the summer but half a season of Nemanja Matic should change their minds.
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Dream: Christian Eriksen
United tried with all their hearts to sign a No. 10 this summer and you can see why. The United attack is rudderless without one. Jesse Lingard is a defensive specialist only suited to certain games and Juan Mata, delightful though he is, belongs in a different style of play. Christian Eriksen, however, is adept at playing multiple styles of play thanks to his time with Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs.
Eriksen can run the break as United delight in doing, but he can also play a slower game. With deep-blocks so repeatedly confounding United, having someone like Eriksen to provide killer passes and crosses could be transformative. Eriksen is doubly important when you realise he can take set-pieces, which is something United are laughably bad at. Adding Eriksen to the side would dramatically up United’s chance creation and instantly make Paul Pogba’s forward runs a relevant threat again as he’d have someone who could pick him out.
Unfortunately Eriksen is one of three No. 10s who turned United down this summer, and whilst months of being in and out of the Spurs side as Mauricio Pochettino flexes his authority on the Dane for not renewing his contract could change his mind, his preferred destination probably still would be to go abroad. United’s inability to offer Champions League football is a big negative for a player who just made the final and wants to get back there. Then there’s the difficulty in United doing business with Spurs. All in all, this transfer is fraught with complications and considering the pressure of a shortened window in January, it seems likely to remain a dream.
Realistic: David Brooks
Looking for realistic players to fill the attacking midfield void, there are many names across the continent that United could be linked to – but if we stick to their plan of signing young British talent then one name jumps out as a realistic option: Bournemouth’s 22-year-old Welshman David Brooks. They were briefly linked with him in the summer and returning for him in January, with the ability to offer European football and a huge bump in wages, could prove very tempting indeed.
Thanks to coaching by the brilliant Eddie Howe, Brooks has developed into a fantastic footballer. An impeccable dribbler with supreme balance and speed, he’s already got a (sumptuous) assist at Old Trafford to his name and could play as a right-winger or no. 10, depending on what formation United went with. He is an incredible force on the break, making him a great fit for Solskjaer’s counter-attacking play, and his outrageous skill when 1v1 against defenders could do so much to open up packed defences.
He’s a good passer too, creative enough to pick out intelligent through-balls to his team-mates. He does dwell on the ball a bit too much but given his age and utterly absurd dribbling skill that’s to be expected. Brooks would be a much rougher diamond than Eriksen but with the potential for United to polish him into a glittering stone that they could call their own. David Brooks is a player bursting with potential and needing only the right stage on which to show it. And playing at Manchester United with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and compatriot Daniel James could be just that stage. An attack that is young, fun and ready to run.