This summer was perfectly set up by Manchester United’s showings at the backend of the 2019/20 English Premier League season with notable improvements shown. The start of this season, by contrast, has seen them revert back to square one with their midfield culpable once again.
The only midfield arrival has been Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, and while he’s a smart acquisition, he wasn’t exactly a priority. There’s no doubt that this midfield achieved great things last season propelling them to third, but at times it was papering over the cracks. Paul Pogba’s inconsistent displays and Nemanja Matic’s insufficient mobility being tested were partially at fault. Now, arguably the biggest dilemma facing Ole Gunnar Solskjær is who is in his first-choice midfield with what he has at his disposal?
This analysis aims to explore this notion further and break down the personnel available and see who is the best fit in Manchester United’s midfield. The scout report will explain the current style of play and its problems before diving into our choices.
Manchester United’s systematic issues
Manchester United have actively used a 4-2-3-1 formation under Solskjær with a 3-4-1-2 as a tactical option from time to time, especially against the bigger sides. The common factor between these systems is the use of two central midfielders and an attacking midfielder.
Manchester United’s general style of play is a counter-attacking based system which predicates the use of a quartet of pace-filled attackers. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, and Mason Greenwood are four talented attackers that bring speed, vision, and threat to their attack.
Solskjær encourages them to stay higher up the pitch, rarely tracking back to ensure they have numbers in the event of a turnover. Both Greenwood and Rashford are inside forwards that prefer to drift into central areas and attack the box. Martial positions himself closer to the side the ball is on to latch onto any through balls that may come his way, using his pace to beat the last defender. While in theory this system can work, it requires competent, balanced full-backs and tactically disciplined central midfielders, and this is where the problems start.
Having four great attackers is fine but it requires the central midfield pairing to be slightly more pragmatic and disciplined. Post-lockdown Solskjær preferred to use Pogba and Matic as his double-pivot with Fernandes stationed as the number 10.
While in some matches the three worked well with United scoring a plethora of goals, the performances have not been very consistent. It’s also left them defensively vulnerable due to the nature of both midfielders. This imbalance has caused a number of structural and tactical problems where there are too many similar profiles of players, which results in them playing on top of each other.
The trio of Pogba, Fernandes, and Matic gives Manchester United an opportunity to attack and play quickly through the thirds; however, it has come across problems against the so-called ‘smaller’ sides.
Many a time, United will struggle to break down a low block and defensively compact sides who are happy to sit back and suffocate any space in the final third and force the team to pass sideways. Vertical passes become much harder to execute and ultimately slows down Manchester United’s overall play.
The passive nature of play means teams can easily defend against them despite the quality forwards on the pitch. The opposition is almost able to man-mark United’s dangerous players and force the more passive players into horizontal passes.
As the image illustrates, Crystal Palace are defending in a 4-4-2 that is compact. You can clearly see the three central players being man-marked by Palace players which means they aren’t passing options for Matic. The problem lies herein, where the slow passing allows the opposition to be compact and organise themselves properly. It was one of the reasons for United’s loss in this game as they were unable to break down a stubborn Palace side.
Another tactical issue is the opposition’s press in midfield. Regardless of the side, teams are able to apply pressure on United’s double-pivot which means they are forced into making quicker decisions and ultimately it means that they are forced to pass back. Players of Pogba and Matic’s calibre should be able to deal with this, but being pressed into these spaces without having adequate passing options nearby means that United can lose possession without having the chance to counter-press.
Most teams employ hard pressing tactics to stifle United’s creativity. The duo of Pogba and Matic have been particularly weak in this regard. While they have the physical attributes to try and outmuscle their opponents, he more often than not loses out in dangerous areas and turns over possession. The duo have turned over possession at times in midfield, leaving the defence exposed.
This passage of play shows Pogba in possession against Crystal Palace, but upon receiving the ball is immediately pushed back by the attacker. The Frenchman is unable to find a way forward and is therefore forced to turn back and pass to his centre-back. The constant aggression from the Palace attacker meant Pogba couldn’t switch play to create a goal-scoring opportunity.
Lastly, Manchester United’s midfield leaves too much room between the lines. There is a noticeable gap between the double-pivot and attacking midfielder where the opposition can take control. Manchester United employ an intense pressing style but the issue there is that there is no real cohesion between the three players.
Fernandes has brought a real intensity in their press in the final third where he starts the forward press. However, Matic and Pogba aren’t able to follow up with the press and as a result, become disjointed. Any pressure applied on the defenders is relieved when it reaches the opposition’s midfield due to the lack of pressing in the central areas.
There has been a real need for cohesion and energy in midfield and United’s best defensive work has come when one of Fred or McTominay has been present. Part of the problem lies in recruitment. Manchester United have needed a combative, dynamic defensive midfielder with Matic not being an exact fit in the philosophy Solskjær wants. These next two images exemplify the issue being discussed.
The recent thrashing by Tottenham Hotspur highlighted a number of the problems Manchester United faced in midfield. Here you can see Pogba picking up possession from the deeper areas, however, there is a lack of viable passing options forward with Matic in a horizontal position to his left. Spurs clearly have enough players in the central areas to dominate if they win back possession.
This next image is after Pogba’s pass towards Fernandes in the final third where he loses out in the duel. With Spurs recovering possession, they’re able to quickly turn and progressive the ball into midfield with no real presence from a United player.
United have played some of their better football when allowed to sit back against teams that keep possession and playing with two more energetic midfielders. Even then, the result has been more effective from a defensive standpoint but the link-up between midfield and attack is still disjointed. Now that the system and issues have been elaborated upon, we will dive into the current options available to Solskjær and give our reasoning for each selection.
Who should start for Manchester United?
Even though Solskjær uses two different formations, we will assume the 4-2-3-1 formation as the preferred system. So currently Manchester United have Pogba, Matic, Fred, McTominay, Fernandes, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, and Van de Beek as potential midfield options. United are bloated here, however, there is an imbalance in the types of profiles they need, so this selection is based on the needs discussed earlier.
Starting with the attacking midfield/number ‘10’ position, this choice was probably the easiest of the three. Fernandes has arguably been Manchester United’s most effective player since his arrival in January and has made a noticeable difference to their play style.
As it’s been alluded to already, Fernandes is a modern creative attacking midfielder who possesses all the traits needed to play in the current understanding of the number 10 role. The Portuguese international brings an impressive range of on-the-ball skills including his ball progression and passing range, while his off-the-ball work has been imperative to Manchester United’s tactics in recent times.
Especially when off the ball, his intelligence has been visible whereby he’s able to make late runs into the 18-yard box as well as make vital interceptions and put in a good defensive shift by harrying players.
Taking a look at his on-the-ball attributes, Fernandes has been excellent with his passing range and dribbling which has improved United’s ball progression in the final third. He’s a player that prefers to be positioned between the lines which makes him very hard to man-mark. His movements combined with that of Martial’s, Rashford’s, and Greenwood’s, makes them a very potent attacking quartet. From a tactical perspective, Fernandes fits into the counter-attacking tactics because of this, and is able to constantly find space and bring other players into play.
In this example from the UEFA Europa League last season, you can see Fernandes pick up possession between Sevilla’s midfield and defence with the trio of Greenwood, Martial, and Rashford all running in behind. Fernandes quickly recognises the space to play in Greenwood and slots in a smart pass into his path. This sort of quick thinking and passing from the number 10 means United can break effectively and quickly. This skillset even helps in possession-heavy tactics when United will be forced to attack.
A lot of what Manchester United need is off-the-ball cohesion in the attacking third which requires pressing from all the attackers but dictated by the midfield. High or even mid pressing strategies are a norm now but a lot of United’s problems have stemmed from a lack of a cohesive press.
Fernandes brings this to the side when he plays with his energetic running. Being a player that sits in between the lines, he’s able to catch opposition defenders and midfielders off guard which can be used to turn over possession and counter-attack. The example below shows his hard work in tracking back and dispossessing the Palace attacker.
Moving to the double-pivot, the first player picked would be Fred. The Brazilian would bring a tenacity to Manchester United’s midfield that would compliment Fernandes’ pressing abilities up front. When he moved to Manchester United, he was brought in as a player that would be a link between defence and midfield. Effective in possession and passing, Fred has come to improve in his off-the-ball game as well, where he’s been able to press and pressurise opposition players in specific games. The Manchester derby last season is a standout game where Fred shone in his number 6 role.
Fred’s main attributes lie in his ability in holding the ball, connecting the thirds, and pressing. If we specifically look at what he brings on the ball, it’s a calmness in possession and an ability to keep it ticking. The central defenders are confident in giving Fred the ball because of his ability to work well in smaller spaces. He averages 65 passes per 90 with a completion rate of 86.6% and receives 52.33 passes per 90. What these statistics suggest is that he’s been a reliable passer who is also trusted by his teammates. Being able to successfully play passes at a high success rate means he can aid in the build-up.
This is an example of Fred’s passing ability in tight, smaller spaces where he’s comfortable in possession. When Fred receives the pass, he is immediately pressed by two Brighton & Hove Albion players but manages to calmly pass it towards Brandon Williams. His ability to keep possession ticking means he’s a viable passing option who’s able to beat pressing teams, which is needed for Manchester United to compete against high-intensity teams.
In games that Solskjær opted for a more pragmatic approach, Fred was often a go-to option in midfield – not only for his in possession skills, but his off-the-ball work too. The Manchester derby last season is an example of Fred’s good pressing abilities. The Brazilian is able to harass players constantly and force mistakes. In doing so, he’s able to create turnovers and counter-attacking situations.
Fred has registered 10.47 defensive duels (46% success), 3.49 interceptions, and 2.79 loose ball duels (50% success) per 90 minutes. These three statistics suggest that Fred has been an effective defensive presence in midfield and can really aid the team in transitions.
The below example highlights Fred’s pressing and ability to turn over possession and put United on the front foot. Here, he’s pressed the Sevilla player after the ball was played out, and he’s been able to press and win the ball back almost immediately.
Another advantage he brings is that if Manchester United’s full-backs are pushed up, Fred has the athleticism and game sense to slot into a full-back position to cover. The acquisition of Alex Telles means United will see their left-sided full-back bomb forward numerous times which will need sufficient cover. If he is played alongside McTominay, then this should create an insurance policy for United defensively whilst allowing their attacks to flourish.
Donny van de Beek
The final and most prominent selection is that of Van de Beek. The former Ajax midfielder is the latest signing and at first glance, seems to mirror the profile of midfielder that United have in abundance. Comfortable playing as a 6, 8 or 10, the Dutch international is an all-round talented, intelligent midfielder.
His main skillset is around space creation both for himself and his teammates, although his intelligence serves him well off the ball. Van de Beek is a more dynamic and willing runner both on and off the ball whilst being an excellent passer. These combined attributes make him a player that can make a difference to a sometimes static midfield. His movement and timing between the lines make him a reliable goal threat from midfield.
At Ajax, he contributed at a consistent rate with 10 goals and 8 assists in 2019/20 and 17 goals and 11 assists in the 2018/19 season. With incredible technical skill, Van de Beek can complement United’s front four.
Van de Beek has already shown glimpses of his immense potential at United. In this example, Van de Beek is able to find space between Brighton’s midfield and defence and times his run into his spot perfectly to receive Mata’s pass unopposed. From here, he immediately sees an opportunity to play in Diogo Dalot who continues his run into the 18-yard box.
Not only has Van de Beek found space for himself, but he has the presence of mind to play in a teammate quickly. This sort of quick thinking and creativity is needed in games where Manchester United will be up against compact defences. Most importantly, he won’t crowd the spaces Fernandes wants to occupy.
You’ll often see Van de Beek trying to get into advanced positions to try and make willing off-the-ball runs to either provide the assist or score a goal. You’ll notice that Van de Beek picks up a lot of his possession just outside of the box, where he can assess his passing options or switch play. He does so fairly quickly which means he doesn’t waste time lingering on the ball, but instead always looking to find a creative passing solution.
He understands the space around him and can navigate his way past players with ease with his ball-carrying skill. Obviously, his assist numbers speak for themselves and his passes-to-the-penalty-area average is 1.88, but most importantly, his accuracy rate is 68% which shows the degree of success he has in the final third. Van de Beek’s heat map above indicates his coverage across the pitch in both an offensive and defensive capacity, making him an ideal midfield candidate.
If you take a closer look at the Dutchman from a defensive aspect, he can be a handful. While his strengths lie in going forward, Van de Beek is a decent defender too. With 4.72 defensive duels per 90, 2.71 interceptions per 90, and 5.26 recoveries per 90, he can be a constant pressing threat when required.
Manchester United need a deeper creative player who can affect the final third but also provide a balance by being defensively apt. Alongside Fred and Fernandes, Van de Beek fits the energetic and dynamic midfielder mould who has the stamina to attack and defend.
In truth, Manchester United need a modern-day defensive midfielder to provide a true balance in midfield. What this tactical analysis has shown is areas the team need to improve upon. Matic is in the twilight of his career but by being the only defensive midfielder in the squad, Solskjær has had to use him fairly regularly and to his credit, performed well throughout the season. Under the current circumstances, a midfield three of Fernandes, Fred, and Van de Beek can provide United with a mixture of creativity, goals, and defensive cover to not be overrun at both ends of the pitch.