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Defensive Midfielder: The Key to Bringing Success Back to Old Trafford?

The most important position on a football pitch is highly debatable, some say goalkeeper, others will say in the modern game its fullbacks, whereas I feel the most important position in the team is defensive midfielder. A defensive midfielder acts as a shield to the defence, intercepting counter attacks and trying to provide stability to the midfield. Without a defensive midfielder, often midfields can be imbalanced leaving their defences exposed or on the contrary too heavily covered and thus restricting the creativity in the team.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been heavily criticised for his preference of Scott McTominay and Fred in a double pivot in the midfield. This is seen by many as too defensive, which hinders the teams attacking output. This is as a result of the movement of the passing. The key to a good midfield is the ability to pick the ball off the defence and transition it quickly into the final third for the forwards to attack.

The criticism of McTominay and Fred is both of them are not naturally gifted at passing nor ball control thus when they transition the ball its often too slow as they take many touches and pass side to side as they aren’t comfortable passing forward with great intent. This was seen in the Liverpool vs United game in the backend of last season in May when United lost to their bitter rivals 4-2. Liverpool traditionally under Klopp play with a high press attempting to put the oppositional team under pressure and win back possession high up the field leaving the defence vulnerable and open to chances.

Liverpool used this gameplan and to great effect as they pressed United high and in the title of the Manchester Evening News article for the player ratings, stated; “Fred and Scott McTominay Terrible.” The pair in midfield gave the ball away countless times which inevitably led to Liverpool’s goals. Often, their weak passing can be hidden due to teams sitting off, but when United are pressed their weaknesses become very evident. Furthermore, this although not as prominent an issue but still a weakness is a concern for United when playing teams like Burnley who try sit in and make it difficult.

The lack of creativity in the midfield when using Fred and McTominay means breaking down these resilient teams can be a nightmare. Therefore, the use of Fred and McTominay when playing the weaker teams has become a major criticism of Solskjaer’s from the fans. As a result of Solskjaer’s preference for Mctominay and Fred, this has forced Paul Pogba onto the left wing where he arguably isn’t as effective. This debate is of the essence right now due to Pogba’s phenomenal performances for France in Euro 2020.

Despite being knocked out, Pogba was one of the best players at the tournament playing as a midfielder for France rather then out on the wing. His defence splitting passes, strong tackling and boisterous power in the midfield has led fans to demand Solskjaer moves Pogba back into his ‘best position’ for the start of the 2021/22 season. With the arrival of Jadon Sancho from Dortmund as an exciting winger, this could force Solskjaer to play Pogba in midfield as he’s likely to start Rashford on the left, Sancho on the right and Martial through the middle. 

The effect of a Defensive Midfielder for Manchester United

As seen with France, Pogba looks far more comfortable with a natural defensive midfielder next to him and so with Solskjaer potentially looking at a midfielder in the summer transfer window, the freeing up of Pogba could finally happen. Pogba’s best form recently came when he played next to a natural defensive midfielder in Matic. Matic covered the defence giving Pogba license to go forward. Matic is now 32 turning 33 in August and so is no longer fit enough to play two to three games a week leaving United without a first-choice defensive midfielder.

The emergence of James Garner could solve this in the future but for now United need a world class defensive midfielder to dictate games. For the summer transfer window, I feel this should be our biggest priority as with a good defensive midfielder we will be able to transition the ball far better giving the ball to our more attacking players like Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani quicker so they have more space to attack and exploit the defence.

As mentioned, it will mean Pogba can go forward with more freedom and most importantly if possession is lost there will be a player who can read the play and anticipate and intercept the oncoming attack, and therefore avoid any counterattacks going right through the midfield leaving the defence exposed. Therefore, this would let United dictate and control more games which United have struggled with in recent years letting winnable games slip by to late equalisers like against Everton last season and Southampton post-lockdown.

In addition, all the best teams in the world have a world class defensive midfielder; Manchester City have Fernandinho, Liverpool have Fabinho, Bayern have Joshua Kimmich and Real Madrid have Casemiro. In the last couple months, we’ve seen Fabinho be moved to centre half to deal with their injury issues. Immediately, Liverpool’s defence looked so much weaker as they didn’t have a defensive midfielder Infront of them to shield leaving them incredibly vulnerable.

Furthermore, in the Champions League final, Guardiola tried a midfield without a defensive midfielder. Chelsea used this to their advantage and carved right through City’s defence, and their ‘world class’ defensive partnership of Rúben Dias and John Stones looked completely lost and weak. Therefore, this shows that when these great teams no matter how good they are play without a defensive midfielder they look that much worse. So, if United had a proper defensive midfielder I feel United would improve astronomically and could be the difference between getting to finals and winning titles. 

The main name many fans want is Declan Rice, but some other options include Wilfred Ndidi and Manuel Locatelli. Declan Rice has been an impressive midfielder in West Hams resurgence in the 2020/21 season which has led his value to being of an absurd £80 million due to him being an English midfielder playing in the Premier League. This has led to many feeling that United should avoid Rice as paying £80 million is overpriced. Ndidi is a Nigerian midfielder playing for Leicester. He has good strength and brilliant tackling. These attributes could create great stability in the United midfield but the main issue is price.

Leicester City has an incredibly efficient transfer system meaning they buy for cheap and sell for very high. In the 2019 summer transfer market, United were forced to pay a huge upfront fee of £80 million for Maguire from Leicester. Therefore, Ndidi would cost around a similar fee which in a covid market isn’t realistic. Locatelli who has shone for Italy in the Euros is 23 years old playing for Sassuolo in Serie A. He’s got an eye for goal, as well as great passing ability and tackling which would enable him to progress the ball very well and put some crucial tackles in. His price would be around the region of £30-40 million.

However, Locatelli looks likely to go to Juventus so therefore, United should make a move for Eduardo Camavinga who is an 18-year-old French midfielder playing in the French league for Rennes. He’s highly rated with a special future and would probably cost around £50 million. This may seem extensive for someone so young, but his high ability at 18 means he could be moulded into a world class defensive midfielder in future creating a good relationship with Paul Pogba.

In Conclusion, I feel United must go all out to get a defensive midfielder this summer as a proper defensive midfielder could take United to the next level and bring trophies back to Old Trafford with Camavinga being my first choice if Locatelli goes to Juventus.

Written by Ethan Bents

Four defensive midfielders that could greatly improve Manchester United this summer

Manchester United have endured a tough 2020/21 season which resulted in them finishing second in the Premier League, reaching the quarter-final of the Emirates FA Cup, the semi-final of the Carabao Cup and the final of the UEFA Europa League, after exiting the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. Nemanja Matic is the only defensive midfielder at the club at the present time. Fred and Scott McTominay have played in this position with the latter offering more – but he is a box-to-box midfielder and it does not always work well. Fred does not have much to offer based on his time at the club so losses should be cut on him. For United to be able to challenge, this is a key position as it will enable Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to change his tactics and not use two players in the pivot doing the same job.

Declan Rice, 22 – West Ham United and England

The 22-year-old is a good midfielder and loads of United supporters seem to want him but I feel he has been overrated a little, especially with his fee suggested to be £90 million which has been bandied about recently. In the next few years, he could be a player to compliments a squad and you can see where a lot of the interest comes from but there will be many clubs interested in Rice this summer, especially if he performs well in Euro 2020, which was delayed last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. There will be some hope that United could tempt the Hammers with Jesse Lingard, who spent the second half of the season on loan at the club, but even then it would be a hard push with Chelsea interested in their former academy player.

Rice is perhaps a luxury buy, especially for the fee that could be on his head but in the years to come, the initial outlay could become a bargain based on what he could offer the club. It is safe to say that United are not the club they once were which has developed because of a lack of stability post-Sir Alex Ferguson and the board of the club not doing the right thing to get United back to the top again. However, there is a new dawn at United under Solskjaer, no matter whether everyone agrees or not, it is happening. Rice’s Premier League experience would be good for United but also having a defensive midfielder with the ability to play back to back matches would be great too. This is an important position that needs to be strengthened.

Yves Bissouma, 24 – Brighton and Hove Albion and Mali

The 24-year-old has had a good season with Brighton and Hove Albion and many United supporters have talked about him but at this stage of the summer, United have not been credited with a solid interest in the player but both Liverpool and Arsenal have. Brighton paid £15 million for the player three years ago and would probably make a good return on selling him this summer, which is what they might so. United require a younger defensive midfielder to challenge Nemanja Matic, or replace him if he leaves this summer. Both Fred and Scott McTominay have not worked in this position with the latter more of a box-to-box midfielder. I don’t know what Fred’s strong point is in the midfield and that is after three seasons now.

It is suggested that Bissouma could cost £40 million, which is a decent fee for a player with Premier League experience and the hunger and desire to achieve more in the game. It is quite possible that Liverpool end up signing the player as they are the club most linked with him with Arsenal looking at other players, who may be available at a cheaper price. Their lack of European football next season would be similar to staying at Brighton with no real promotion, just a sideways move. United would not make a mistake with interest in Bissouma as right now he would be an upgrade in a position that United have no real cover for, unless they promote James Garner from the youth team, but a loan to a Premier League club for a season would be better for him.

Ryan Gravenberch, 19 – Ajax and Netherlands

The 19-year-old is the youngest player here but he has the potential to become one of the best in the world in his position. Legendary Dutch coach Aad de Mos insisted that development came naturally to Gravenberch and that he has the potential to become a world class player. He even likened him to an ‘Antelope with coordination and feeling‘. United held interest in the 19-year-old at the end of 2020 and it remains to be seen whether that interest is still there at this time. Donny van de Beek signed for United last summer and already the club was looking at signing another player from the famed academy of Dutch football. He’s been picked to represent the Netherlands at Euro 2020 this summer, so there could be a lot of interest if he plays well.

Gravenberch had both Barcelona and Juventus interested in him at the same time United were stated to be looking at him and now both Liverpool and Chelsea hold some interest in the player, so it will not be a clean cut transfer, especially if his performance levels this summer for the Netherlands are good, which will probably bring forward some offers for the player. It could go the other way too. The player could be available for a fee of around £40 million, maybe more, which is comparative to far fee of Van de Beek last summer. The only downfall is that Mino Raiola represents the player, which could be a turning point for United as they will not want to do business with the agent who has been the voice in the background with Paul Pogba for the past five years.

Mauro Arambarri, 25 – Getafe CF and Uruguay

The 25-year-old is more recently linked to United and his Uruguayan roots could be something that works well with Edinson Cavani at the club for another season and Facundo Pellistri heading into his second year at the club, after a six month loan in Spain, which could be something that continues for him into the new season. Spanish newspaper, AS, recently reported that United had contacted Getafe regarding Arambarrri. His current contract expires in the summer of 2023 and he has a €25 million release clause, which is about £21.5 million at this current time. He would be a frugal option, which might be needed this summer with United still linked to Jadon Sancho, amongst others this summer.

The player seems to have the ingredients in his locker to become a good defensive midfielder but his lack of Premier League experience would represent a gamble. His stats in Spain look quite good compared to players of the same or similar positions as him, which is a good thing to see. Premier League experience is not everything as United have signed many players who have not played in the league recently and they seem to be doing well. Of course, Bruno Fernandes is the benchmark, closely followed by Edinson Cavani. United definitely need to strengthen this position as it would enable the midfield to have some surety in strength, reducing the reliance on Nemanja Matic, who could also leave the club this summer.

Written by John Walker

copyright: JW