It is often said that a football team’s midfield is like a car engine: one that is well oiled and nicely put together with plenty of fuel will keep you going for hours and will rarely be found wanting. One that is old, much less than the sums of its parts and needs frequent inspection will not get you very far at all. It is also often said that a team’s midfield is where most matches are won and lost in the heat of battle.
In other words, your midfield is the single most important recipe for success. A significant part of the reason why Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona team were exactly that is because not only did they have Lionel Messi, Pedro and David Villa et al, but Xavi and Andres Iniesta were metronomically pulling the strings to allow the fabled front three to flourish. It’s the same now with the vision of Sergio Busquets and the passing range and energy of Ivan Rakitic. Without your midfield, your forward line won’t score, and without your midfield, you defence will be left exposed.
There were three big gaping holes in the United team that needed surgery in the summer – the right-back position, central defence and central midfield. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire have fixed the first and second of those problems, but a failure to replace the departed Ander Herrera is nothing short of criminal. Especially when placed within the time frame we’ve had available to do so.
I don’t like comparing United with the mob from across the road but in this case the contrast is clear. Fernandinho remains a class act, and even though he’s 34 he’d walk into this United midfield. It’s no co-incidence that City’s worse spell of last season came with the Brazilian sidelined. He’s still at his peak and a key cog of the plans for world domination, yet City are already planning for the future. Fernandinho hasn’t even left the club yet they’re already replaced him with the £62m capture of 23-year-old Spanish international Rodri. Always evolving, always one step ahead.
Compare that to our undermanned, much of a muchness, muddled midfield. The powers that be knew that Herrera was going six months ago, yet here we are in the final hours of deadline day and there’s no sign of Christian Eriksen, Bruno Fernandes, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic or even Sean Longstaff. Indeed, there’s no hard evidence to suggest any bids were even tabled for any of the above.
We should have had a ready made Herrera 2.0 to slot in seamlessly the moment it was announced he was off. That’s how everyone else would do it. There is simply no excuse for scrambling around at the last minute to address a problem that has been glaringly obvious for the best part of a year. What on earth the hierarchy have been doing, I wouldn’t like to think. It’s almost as if those in the corridors of power have awoken from a year-long coma, completely oblivious to the world around them. A centre half was United’s main, needs must priority, but getting another ball-playing string puller to direct operations from the engine room was just as equally urgent, perhaps even more so.
The scary truth is that we’re one injury away from a having a midfield akin to the likes of Burton Albion and Sunderland. Paul Pogba may still yet get his move, Nemanja Matic is the equivalent of a traffic cone, Fred has flattered to deceive and Andreas Pereira’s still dining out on a free-kick against Ipswich five years ago.
Scott McTominay’s work rate and tenacity is admirable, and he’s certainly grown on me, but he’s hardly Roy Keane, Bryan Robson and Paul Scholes rolled into one. More combative than creative, he can be relied upon to snuff out the danger, win the ball and move it on, but that looks to be the zenith of his talents.
In an era of the midfield three where you ideally want the human wrecking ball ethos of a Keane combined with the lung busting energy of Robson and the box-to-box busy-ness of a Scholes, we’ve instead got a wantaway enigma and an ageing Serb with the turning circle of a tank. To pin all our hopes on McSauce – the lone beacon of hope in a downtrodden midfield wasteland – is asking a lot of a young 22-year-old in only his second full season at United. It is criminal.
United’s defence may now have the look of a powerful, youth-infused upgrade, but in a landscape increasingly dominated by leaders of men, our tentative triumvirate doesn’t look fit for purpose. We’re definitely worse off than this time 12 months ago, without Herrera’s influence and the effective awkwardness of the Premier League’s greatest Plan B – Marouane Fellaini.
Muddled, undermanned and ill-equipped for the season ahead – it is very worrying that any team worth their weight in gold will bypass our midfield with ease. It appears Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuilding project still has a long way to run.