Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crusade to bring Britain’s best young talent to Manchester United is reportedly set to continue with Newcastle United midfielder Sean Longstaff.
The Red Devils have already secured the £15m signing of Welsh winger Daniel James, with Crystal Palace right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka following in a £50m move.
And although Solskjaer putting all his eggs in this particular basket may seem like a risk – given just how far behind the rest of their top-six rivals Man Utd were last season – you can’t help but admire the policy, and even get a little excited at what it might bring.
So, with Longstaff as the next youngster in the 20-time English champions’ cross-hairs, we’ve taken a look at how his stats compare to those who played in his position at Old Trafford last season.
Passing: Man United a whole different ball game to Newcastle
A look at Longstaff’s successful passes per 90 minutes initially paints a quite worrying picture, with the 21-year-old averaging a lower figure (31.05) than all of Man Utd’s central midfielders from last season except Tahith Chong.
However, given that Newcastle had the second-lowest average share of possession (39.37%) in the Premier League last season, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Longstaff is bound to see less of the ball. In fact, his passes-completed-per-90 record is the third-highest among all Newcastle midfielders.
His accuracy when he does get on the ball in his own half was a mightily impressive 92.57% – more than any Man Utd midfielder last season and a glimpse into just how much he could help Solskjaer’s centre-backs progress the ball quicker. Given that United’s closest players in this area were the disappointing Fred (92.28%) and the recently departed Ander Herrera (91.61%), this bodes well for Longstaff.
His overall passing accuracy of 80.89% was lower than any United midfielder last term but with youth comes wastefulness. Experience should tighten up those loose passes and you’d hope that having the likes of Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial moving around him to receive the ball would increase his viable options.
Defending: A ‘mad dog’ to replace Herrera?
Of course, playing in the middle of midfield for Man Utd isn’t all about having the ball. You have to be efficient and aggressive in winning it back. From Roy Keane to Michael Carrick, United have almost always had an expert ball-winner in the midfield, who can then get things going himself as and when required.
Given how much more defending Longstaff will have been tasked with at St James’ Park compared to what he’d expect to do at Old Trafford, it isn’t a shock to see him sit only behind Nemanja Matic (0.66) in blocks per 90 minutes with 0.52.
However, Man Utd’s top interceptors per 90 minutes last season were Herrera (2.37), Andreas Pereira (1.67), Scott McTominay (1.57) and Fred (1.38). Jose Mourinho’s former “mad dog” Herrera has left for PSG and of the remaining three, McTominay is the only one with realistic hopes of holding down a spot in the starting XI. With that, Longstaff will have to improve quickly on his rate of 1.31 to help United break up opposition play, should he join.
But while his tackles per 90 minutes is someway off Herrera’s 3.46, Longstaff’s rate of 2.23 is comfortably in advance of the likes of Matic (1.84) and McTominay (1.04), meaning he can add great value for Solskjaer here.
Creativity: Can Longstaff ease the burden on Pogba?
Last season, far too much responsibility was placed on the shoulders of Pogba in pretty much every facet of United’s play, but none more so than in the final third. The France international topped almost every metric in the book and, if he remains at Old Trafford, he’s going to need some back-up to help return United to former glories.
And while Longstaff is certainly not in the same category or style of player as Pogba, the youngster can certainly help service United’s star man, as well as take some of the creative responsibility for himself.
Longstaff scored two goals in 12 first-team appearances in all competitions for the Magpies last season before having his season ended prematurely through injury, showing he already has a relatively keen eye for goal. He also won the penalty through which Newcastle scored their winner against Manchester City last season. Given that Pogba is the only Man Utd midfielder to have scored more than three Premier League goals last season with the exception of Jesse Lingard (4), who often played as an inside forward, Solskjaer certainly needs to add more firepower in this area.
Although Longstaff outperformed United’s deep-lying midfielders – the position he is likely to fill at Old Trafford – Matic and McTominay in terms of chances created per 90 minutes (0.66, 0.48 and 0.1, respectively), his total is absolutely nowhere near that of the more advanced Juan Mata (2.09) or Pogba (1.65). That said, if Longstaff can add more thrust and progressive passing from deeper positions than what United have at the moment, it will both ease the load on the likes of Pogba and Mata and help unlock their true potential in the final third.
Verdict: Is Longstaff good enough to be a Man United midfielder?
It needs to be said that Longstaff is still very much a diamond in the rough. The Newcastle-born youngster has just eight Premier League appearances under his belt for his boyhood club to date, with his only other first-team experience coming on loan at Kilmarnock and Blackpool. The apparent £25m fee being bandied around would have plenty of risk attached to it.
But during his short time in the Newcastle first team, Longstaff has proved he is both a technically gifted passer of the ball and a tenacious tackler. If he is allowed the time to develop, the 21-year-old could add some much-needed bite to the Red Devils’ midfield, as well as helping them have a Plan B for when their counter-attacking style fails by keeping hold of the ball and recycling possession. The key lies in how much patience the Man Utd board and fans are willing to have in Solskjaer’s youth-first approach.