Opinion: Toothless Manchester United have a plethora of problems but the midfield is still the most obvious

Manchester United put on a woeful performance against Wolves on Monday night. Ralf Rangnick was looking for a more complete performance alongside three points, however what he got was a pitiful display and his first Premier League defeat. Going into the match there was actually a cautious feeling of optimism around the club, as a favourable run of fixtures lay ahead for United and the top four beckoned. 

Unfortunately, it quickly became abundantly clear that this optimism was misplaced as United were lethargic and sloppy for the first half, eventually succumbing to a brilliant Wolves winner late in the second. The result leaves United in seventh, four points adrift of the top four albeit with a game in hand.

On an overall dreary evening at Old Trafford, perhaps it was Scott McTominay’s poor performance that was most indicative of the state that United find themselves in as of late. McTominay had put in a monstrous MOTM performance last time out against Burnley yet looked lost in midfield just days later. As a result, Wolves created a massive number of chances in the first half, posting the most shots against a United side in a half for over two years. 

Rumoured United target Ruben Neves and his Portuguese compatriot Joao Moutinho dominated the midfield battle, while United’s Nemanja Matic looked a million miles off the pace. This was the second game in which Cristiano Ronaldo has ever captained United, this time in the absence of Harry Maguire, however Ronaldo was far from inspiring himself. 

Most frustrating for United was the amount of awful, misplaced passes and inability to retain possession, Luke Shaw subsequently stating that the players felt as though there were limited passing options. If anything, this result, and performance will serve as a major reality check for Rangnick and the size of the job on his hands.

Most worryingly for both Rangnick and United fans will be the lack of any evidence of Rangnick’s pressing style, which we’ve seen just once before in the first 30 minutes against Crystal Palace- for a manager that has lauded the idea of control, there has been a distinct lack of it in recent weeks.

Midfield Issues:

It can feel like United’s lack of quality in midfield is highlighted on a weekly basis at this point, but the sad truth is that it is consistently the major area letting the team down. United failed to invest over the last two seasons in a top holding midfielder and the team has suffered for it, relying on Fred and McTominay who are just not cut out for it more often than not. Against Wolves it was evident that Matic is long past his sell by date, and wasn’t even showing maturity when on the ball- often losing possession cheaply. 

Aside from the two in midfield who started against Wolves, United only have Fred as another option and arguably Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek, although they are more attackingly inclined. It’s been a feature for so long now that United will be exposed defensively through the midfield and pressing fullbacks, while simultaneously lacking the quality in the middle to transition the ball effectively from defence to attack.

It is easy to blame the midfield consistently despite there being other issues at hand, but the reality is the midfield area is pivotal in a league full of such quality. 

United have deadly forwards in the likes of Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Jadon Sancho, however it’s difficult to suggest they’ve been supplied with a good level of service this season. It may be true that some of United’s forwards don’t press enough or fit the way United have tried to play, but it would be silly to discard players of such quality to compensate for a poor midfield. 

There’s almost a disconnection about the United team between the defence and front four, an issue that several formation changes haven’t solved and something Rangnick is yet to crack. The underlying truth that is apparent now and has been for some time is that United have to invest big money in the midfield over the next two windows if they want the team to function properly, it’s just too much of a root cause for other issues and should have been addressed long ago.

Underperforming Fullbacks:

Another major issue that United have had to contend with this season is a major decline in the performances of both Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan Bissaka. It was probably expected that Luke Shaw’s bout of world class form from last season would be unsustainable due to burnout, but a drop of such a high degree in performance was certainly not expected.

Shaw, who was so good at linking with Pogba and United’s wingers last season, has really struggled to impose himself both going forward in matches and defensively. 

The same can be said about Wan Bissaka, who has never impressed offensively and unfortunately looks to have regressed this season. There is no doubt about Wan-Bissaka’s quality defensively and particularly in one v one situations, but frequent mistakes and a lack of offensive improvement means time is running out for the right-back to prove he is the long-term option for United. 

These subpar performances have meant that both players have been rotated out in recent weeks under Rangnick, meaning a massive improvement is needed if they are to be trusted again and be good enough for United to be competitive in every game.

Poor Mentality/Squad Harmony:

One of the most concerning facets of United’s poor performances as of late is the negative body language that has emerged from several of the team’s key players. Some of this can be traced back to early in the season, particularly Ronaldo’s frequent shows of frustrations when the team has lost, but most recently the body language of the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho has not been good either. 

Rashford made an appearance last night in what was an utterly ineffective cameo, while Sancho played the whole game with little confidence and his head down. To compound United’s woes, Luke Shaw’s interview after the game was a damning insight into a fractured team; chastising the lack of effort and commitment, while also insinuating that the team “wasn’t all together”

There have been reports of unrest in the dressing room lately, but for a player to come out with an interview like that is very concerning for the manager and club. Whatever the issue is in the dressing room, every player needs to leave their ego at the door and grasp the responsibility of playing for Manchester United.

It’s been a difficult season for United as a whole, but it’s important to remember we are only halfway through. United still have so much to play for – the top four, Champions League and the FA Cup, meaning it’s vital the players and manager sort out this run of poor performances and find a solution before the season gets away completely. 

As the new year is brought in, so too does the January transfer window open, perhaps help in the midfield can be acquired from there, but the squad and club as a whole simply have to raise the standards back to an acceptable level if anything meaningful is to be achieved this season.

Written by Sam Wilson

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I support Manchester United, the greatest English football team to have ever existed. Bruno Fernandes is the latest in a long line of players with great ability to play for the club. I idolised Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Eric Cantona growing up.