Manchester United has finally settled down with a midfield triangle from the depth of options in the squad. From the beginning of the season, it was clear that United would need to play a midfield three to give Paul Pogba the creative midfield freedom to succeed. Pogba is clearly United’s most important player, in every way, but the initial confusion surrounded who would pair him.
Ander Herrera emerged as the second player by a distance- his outstanding quality, combined with his qualities of passion, tenacity, and leadership, saw him emerge as a second option. For a while, it seemed as if Marouane Fellaini could be the third, but he is a disaster, while United fan-favourite duo Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin have become outcasts waiting to leave the club, as confirmed by Jose Mourinho.
This left two options in Juan Mata and Michael Carrick, and while the Spaniard represented the evolution of the side and was one of United’s best midfield players at this point, United failed to kill off matches without Carrick’s calmness. At first, it seemed strange, but Carrick’s presence on the pitch sees United finish chances more proficiently, make fewer mistakes defensively, and pick up fewer yellow cards.
The season quickly revealed that Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba, and Ander Herrera constituted United’s best midfield, by a distance, and four consecutive Premier League wins later, this proves increasingly true as United moves into the New Year on the fringes of the Champions League places. United’s technical midfield involves common interests and pressing systems that allow the side to function efficiently.
Common Interests, Individual Strengths
While many have been raving about the performances of Phil Jones at the back and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the front, it is Manchester United’s midfield, as a unit, that has been the key to success. The functionality of this midfield is predicated on a balance of individual offerings between all three players but functions based on their common interests in a football match.
Carrick offers, as aforementioned, stability and composure. Herrera and Pogba can be erratic midfielders without a tempo and have always shown success in teams with a metronomic midfielder in behind. Intelligence, not physicality, allows Carrick to cover space and make interceptions between the lines, covering the space when Herrera and Pogba press (more on that later) to decrease the space in which Zlatan Ibrahimovic operates.
Herrera offers the tenacity to transition a football and win it back, strangely playing a physical role in the side. Becoming a physical presence in the side, Herrera has transitioned from somewhat of a Paul Scholes to a complete Roy Keane for United, embodying the side’s passion and driving United forward when Pogba is being marked.
Pogba offers flair and physicality, compensating for the lack of aerial prowess from United’s other midfielders, as well as the goals and assists. Often occupied by the thought of his fee, people didn’t realize that Pogba offered everything the midfield needed- dribbling, physicality, aerial prowess, goals, and assists- he was the perfect signing. Pogba’s five goals and three assists are already fantastic for a central midfielder, but they will be further improved in later seasons as his finishing improves- if he can score twenty goals without changing roles, he will be the best player in the world.
Most importantly, though, is one attribute all three players have that was not aforementioned. All three players base their football around passing, which is what makes the unit so fluid. With Marouane Fellaini in the side, it wasn’t that he played badly, but that he does not share the same attributes as the rest of the midfielders at the club. The same could arguably be said about Morgan Schneiderlin, who was a phenomenal midfielder at Southampton but could not establish himself in an efficient unit at United.
Herrera, Carrick, and Pogba win the ball back and press space with two systems. The first is an individual press, with either Herrera or Pogba making a run between the other of the two and Ibrahimovic. Typically, Herrera presses the space when United has the chance to win the ball in advanced areas because Pogba can then win resulting aerial duels when defenders clear the ball. Otherwise, Pogba will press the space, because he is the most dangerous midfielder of the three, and when the ball is intercepted by Herrera or Carrick, Pogba is in open space before the opposition can mark him.
The second form of midfield pressing usually involves both Herrera and Pogba pressing the space, creating a gap between the duo and Carrick and reducing the gap between them and Ibrahimovic. This numerical advantage in the attack forces the opposition goalkeeper to make a clearance, and then Phil Jones or Marcos Rojo will step into midfield to help Carrick make up the numbers and win the ball back in the empty space.
This midfield has clearly been successful, but there are still further questions for Jose Mourinho to answer. The first question, obvious, involves the eventually imperative replacement of the aging Michael Carrick. Many believe Sean Goss or Daley Blind could be the player to replace Carrick, but neither has emerged, and both seem a little bit lightweight. In world football, few players offer the same attributes as Michael Carrick. Toni Kroos and Ivan Rakitic come to mind, but neither are available.
In addition, Mourinho needs to find rotational options to preserve the midfield for the rest of the season. Besides the potential Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan rotating with Herrera, United stands to lose significant quality by rotating the midfield and will experience physical deficiencies if Pogba is removed. Perhaps signings will need to come in, but even then, it has been documented that Carrick cannot be replaced, and Pogba is one of a kind.
United has a midfield unit to rival the best in the world, but many questions still need to be asked if this midfield is to be maintained for the rest of Jose Mourinho’s time at the club. Carrick, Herrera, and Pogba is a combination of midfielders not many sides can boast, but it will mean nothing if the former declines and the latter two burn out from playing too much football. Mourinho has struggled with this problem at most of his previous clubs, but he has a bigger toolbox than ever to sort it out and maintain a midfield of champions at Manchester United.