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Opinion: Manchester United’s Midfield Dilemma

MacFinder

The 2021/22 Premier League season has started and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a big decision to make with regards to who he picks as his first-choice midfield. Since his arrival at the club, Solskjaer has tried to stick to partnerships remaining loyal to his primary midfielders. Due to Bruno Fernandes’ remarkable impact, his spot in the team has always been guaranteed thus leaving Solskjaer only two spots to figure out. In Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1, he’s often used Scott McTominay and Fred as his midfield pivot to ensure stability at the back.

This can be viewed as quite defensive, but it does provide that cover for the back four especially when he sees the partnership of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire as unreliable. With the addition of Raphael Varane, this may change the dynamic at United as Solskjaer will feel that his new centre half partnership is assured and thus he can adapt to a more offensive approach rather than two more defensive minded players. Therefore, Solskjaer has a big decision to make on whether to play more freely but leaving the defence more vulnerable or sticking to a more stable but offensively hindered duo. The four midfield partnerships he could choose are:

Scott McTominay and Fred

Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba

Donny van de Beek and Nemanja Matic

Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay/Fred

Firstly, McTominay and Fred. This is the pivot we’ve seen the most of as a pairing and thus know what to expect. They bring high work rate always willing to run for the badge and won’t give in when it gets tough. Defensively, they are solid and can cover the back four well seen especially in games against Manchester City where United had to defend for much of the game due to City’s expert ball retention ability but held them out before swiftly hitting them on the counter-attack. McTominay’s height and aggression brings a real ariel presence and can help to win the midfield battle due to his tough tackling and determination to win the ball.

Fred carries a phenomenal engine throughout and never stops pressing and hassling the opposition. However, what this duo lack is technical ability, especially offensively. As a duo they are two separate players doing one mans job; neither player is a specialist defensive midfielder, but Solskjaer has often felt to get the job done you need both. Furthermore, a major weakness of their game is ball progression. A key role in the defensive midfield position is the transition of the ball; they must be able to pick the ball up off the centre half’s and then move it forward with speed.

McTominay and Fred struggle to do this due to their weak first touch, passing and progressive dribbling. Thus, when paired together, the ball is often held around the midfield for far too long taking multiple touches to find a simple pass. This completely slows United’s attacking flow as by the time the ball reaches the final third the opposition’s defence is well organised. Furthermore, because of their weak passing, it can limit how well the ball is progressed often resulting in the forwards dropping deeper and deeper to receive the ball which destroys all attacking shape and make it easier for the oppositions defence.

Therefore, as a duo they bring stability, but due to their weakness on the ball can give possession away which makes it easier for the opposition to dictate the games.

The next partnership is Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba. This partnership was most used post lockdown last year and was highly effective at the time. Its biggest strength is balance, Unlike McTominay and Fred there is balance between a natural defensive midfielder in Matic and then a more creative player in Pogba. This means despite not having two players to cover, the defence is stable as due to Matic’s elite positioning, awareness and ability to intercept he can shield the back four on his own. This then leaves Pogba more license to get forward and with his passing range and strong ball progression abilities, transitioning the ball becomes far easier and more effective.

Matic picks the ball up off the defenders, quickly passing it to Pogba who in turn, can find a 40-yard pass if necessary or make a defence splitting pass through the midfield into the final third for the attackers. This creates a smooth flow and speed to United’s game which is much harder for the opposition to defend. However, one major weakness is energy. Unlike McTominay and Fred in which you’re guaranteed tenacity and energy, with Pogba and Matic this isn’t the case. With Matic’s lack of speed he makes up for it with defensive positioning, but if the opposition team attempt to swamp the midfield it can leave Matic slightly vulnerable.

In addition, Pogba isn’t renowned for his defensive abilities and can be susceptible to not tracking back which would expose Matic even more. Furthermore, as a player Pogba can be clumsy when defending, and has a knack for giving penalties away. This as a trait for a player who is expected to track back and provide cover in the box is a weakness. Therefore, in high energy games this duo can be slightly vulnerable and become a liability but their high quality on the ball means often even against imposing midfields they can retain the ball well keeping a real control on the game and thus not being put into these issues.

Thirdly, there’s the partnership of Matic and Donny van de Beek. This is a relatively untested duo which has emerged in pre-season due to the lack of internationals fit after the Euros. This duo is highly intelligent and would always be one step ahead of the oppositional team. With Van de Beek’s awareness he can play himself out of trouble and prevent United from losing the ball. He like Matic has a good passing range on him, with a real ability to play cute one-twos with teammates making space for others. This will help United’s transition of the ball because both midfielders can pass well and are very comfortable with the ball at feet and can transition it smoothly.

Defensively, although not particularly tall, Van de Beek has good tenacity and can put a tackle in to turnover possession for his side. Furthermore, with Matic next to him it provides the necessary freedom to let him roam forward. Also, Van de Beek is a more energetic player than Pogba and so won’t let himself get ran out of the game. However, he’s not got such a brilliant passing range so can’t create a chance out of nothing like Pogba. Finally, the midfield with Pogba and Fred or McTominay. On paper if you mix Pogba’s attacking output and combine it with Fred’s or McTominay’s defensive work it would create a strong midfield but in reality, it’s the opposite.

Individually, Fred and Mctominay don’t have a strong enough footballing brain especially defensively to properly shield the back four. They can’t read the game like Matic and so United would miss that player who can put in a crucial interception to save a goal scoring opportunity. Furthermore, as Pogba isn’t the strongest defensively, a natural defensive midfielder is necessary and neither Fred nor McTominay provide this. However, as a midfield, due to Mctominay or Fred’s athleticism and stamina, the midfield wouldn’t get outworked and there would be enough speed in there which can be lacking with Matic.

Overall, I feel that despite issues with each pivot, he should use them all. Although previously he’s liked to have one partnership he sticks to, I feel different players will be more effective against different opponents. Against Leeds United due to the impeccable fitness standards Marcelo Bielsa inflicts on his men, Solskjaer used a more energetic duo like McTominay and Fred. But, in the future, against more defensive teams, Solskjaer should look to utilise players like Donny van de Beek and his intricate and clever play style to break down deep blocks.

However, if Solskjaer is to stick to one midfield I think he should, when possible, pick Matic and then either Pogba or Van de Beek as his partner. Last season Pogba played multiple games off the left due to Solskjaer insistence on using Mctominay and Fred and so with Rashford’s injury he may look to move Pogba back to the left and use Van de Beek and Matic as the midfield pivot to maximise creativity.

In Conclusion, I hope that although McTominay and Fred have their qualities, they are used more sparingly, and he goes with a more offensive approach this season as United with the signings of Varane and Jadon Sancho have the quality to dictate games, dominating oppositions and ultimately bring trophies back to Old Trafford.

Written by Ethan Bents

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