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20th Aug 2019

COMMENT: Positive signs can’t hide Manchester United’s midfield malaise

It remains to be seen if this season will be a success or failure, but you get the feeling it will be in spite of the midfield rather than because of it.

Nooruddean Choudry

Manchester United have had half a good summer

They’ve gone a long way to addressing the defensive weaknesses in the team with the signings of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. Not only are both marked upgrades on previous first-choice options, but they are objectively outstanding at what they do, experienced in the Premier League, and mentally unfazed by their high-profile moves.

All in all it makes them as close to instant fixes as you can get. Even in the first two games of the season the difference to the team is clear to see. Suddenly United look far more composed and solid as a defensive unit, and are *gasp* actually able to play out from the back.

Quality additions also have a knock-on effect upon teammates, with Victor Lindelof looking greatly assured and content to play the junior partner in a pairing, whilst colleagues further up the field are more emboldened to make runs and take risks, knowing they have a strong platform behind them from which effective attacks can spring.

Just as important as exciting additions is keeping ahold of established stars and removing certain obstacles to progress. It looks very much as though David de Gea and Paul Pogba will remain at the club for another season at least, which felt less likely at certain stage of the summer.

Romelu Lukaku has moved on to Serie A, with Alexis Sanchez rumoured to be following suit. Both have their merits but didn’t fit at Old Trafford for differing reasons and therefore it makes perfect sense that they move on and give fresh blood a chance. That is how United have chosen to refresh their attack. It remains to be seen whether they’ll miss Lukaku’s glut of goals over the course of a whole season, but his departure suddenly gives Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial greater impetus to fulfil their obvious potential.

The duo are supplemented by the speed and ceaseless willing of Daniel James, and the precocious young talents of Mason Greenwood and Angel Gomes.

So that’s defence and attack sorted to an extent. There is no guarantee that spending big or blooding youth will lead to a lasting and adequate solution, but they are at least clear attempts at remedying obvious issues. The midfield area has however remained an ominous blindspot throughout the close-season.

The loss of Marouane Fellaini was mourned by few at Old Trafford, but he was still an experienced head who fulfilled a purpose. The departure of Ander Herrera was far harder to stomach, as a player who very obviously loved the club and was more than adept (if not outstanding) at all basic elements of the midfielder’s remit. Neither of these players have been replaced by incomings.

United are left with Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic, Fred, Andreas Pereira, and at a push Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, if you include their efforts further up the pitch. Being harsh, that’s a mixed bag of odds and ends with which to enter the new campaign.

Being less harsh, each of those players has their own qualities. Paul Pogba is ridiculously talented and has produced at United – just not as much as he could or should have. There’s a nagging feeling that he could contribute so much more with a strong midfield unit around him.

Scott McTominay has exceeded all expectations and shows real maturity in his play – but looks like he needs a mentor next to him in the same way Darren Fletcher had Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. Nemanja Matic was a rock in the past but increasingly looks like a player on the wane, albeit one who can still contribute on occasions.

Fred hasn’t set the world on fire but does have the potential to grow into a more effective option at United – even though his ultimate ceiling seems relatively low. Andreas Pereira has energy, technique and youth on his side, but if we’re being honest, has the look of a player that Fergie-era United would keep around as a reserve to give others respite.

It is as if the midfield has been largely ignored over the summer because there have been other more pressing concerns. This is bizarre as it is figuratively and literally the heart of the team. The central element of any XI dictates the character, tempo and overall style of play, and that can be hugely undermined by a stop-gap solution.

In listing all of the current options, one consistent theme is apparent – each would be exponentially improved by quality additions alongside them. Much like Lindelof and Luke Shaw look so much better with Maguire and Wan-Bissaka galvanising their line, Pogba, McTominay and the others would benefit within themselves from even one wholly competent new ally.

United flirted with the idea of signing Sean Longstaff but he was quickly overpriced. They were linked with numerous others but it came to nought, whilst Leicester secured Youri Tielemans for £40m and Spurs spent big on potential superstar Tanguy Ndombele.

That’s not to say that either one was necessarily the perfect solution for United, but other teams have supplemented their already strong central beams and United have not. It’s not even as if they can repeat the trick of the forward line with an obvious youth team promotion.

James Garner is an outstanding young talent but still far too inexperienced and callow for such a pivotal role. He has not long turned 18, and although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has good reason to compare him to a young Michael Carrick, he is still a season or two from graduation. That United have failed to address their midfield malaise is a sizeable oversight that could very easily be their undoing.

It remains to be seen whether this season will be deemed a success or a failure based on newly readjusted expectations, but you get the feeling that any level of glory will be in spite of their midfield strength rather than because of it. It is as obvious a weakness now as it was back in May.