Speak to any rival supporter or pundit about the Manchester United midfield and you’ll likely receive an underwhelming response. Within this response, an almost certain dismissal of potential silverware – as a result of the clubs midfield (or lack of) – will rear its head. It’s all a bit familiar, isn’t it?
Roy Keane left Manchester in 2005 and there’s still individuals who’ll argue that the club are yet to replace him. The enigmatic Irishman was Sir Alex Ferguson’s soldier – supplying an outlet for the great Scot to shout on the pitch. His departure, met with dismay by most, opened the door for a successor. Many options were hurled about the press, but who could possibly fill those boots?
Given the necessity to strengthen your options year on year, the club targeted the midfield over several transfer windows. Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves and Anderson were brought in to add varying dimensions. Despite their qualities, the English media would never truly applaud them, and questions were continuously raised about United’s midfield continuity. Hilariously, to this very day, the elegant Michael Carrick is still not graced with the obvious recognition he deserves. What’s even more amusing is that many of these people now view his playing ability as an ideal type for that final jigsaw piece in our current side.
Throughout Sir Alex’s tenure, there were numerous midfield pairings utilised – most notably against Arsenal in the 2011 FA Cup clash, with a midfield pairing of Darren Gibson and John O’Shea. Another midfield stalwart, who never received any form of recognition, was Park Ji-Sung. The South Korean was a workhorse in the side and crucial to many of the great victories achieved. Despite the success obtained, there was never acclaim laid at the feet of these players.
One thing that I’ve always found amusing is the flawed recollection in many of Sir Alex Ferguson’s great sides. There’s a belief that United dominated every game played, and that the football on display was flawless on every occasion. In reality, there were many underwhelming displays, victories snatched from the jaws of defeat and plenty of frustrations on show. The underlying trait that was present in all of his illustrious sides was a steely determination and desire to play until the final whistle. This often outweighed glamour on the field, and many games were won as a result of a glorious piece of counter – attacking brilliance.
When you look at the current United side, there’s so much to admire. The summer acquisitions supply an endless array of attacking talent; while the defence has ample options to solidify a back four to rival any. However, despite this, a lack of a midfield signing has left plenty for the media to feast upon – and they certainly don’t need an invitation.
Disregarding the endless negativity, there’s a clear pattern beginning to formulate. In midfield, we’re now seeing Paul Pogba utilised as a ‘quarterback’. The Frenchman has lined up in a midfield duo for the last two games, and while the Wolves game was largely frustrating, the Newcastle synopsis supplies a supplementary insight into the tactical approach we can expect. In that very game, Pogba played 23 passes into the final third – the highest figure of any midfielder in this Premier League campaign to date.
What’s even more evident from these last two matches is the oppositions intent on sitting with ten men behind the ball, hitting a clearance to the solitary sprinter on the half way line, and breaking with pace to alleviate the pressure (in hopes of snatching a goal). On both occasions, Fred and Matic have been left behind in their attempts to quell this obvious tactical approach. Cries for further signings and articles exposing a glaring weakness will inevitably rise from this.
Does a Declan Rice or Yves Bissouma alleviate this approach – facilitating a means to destroy any hit and hope long balls? I’m not entirely convinced. Both players are extremely talented, don’t get me wrong, but lineup in sides that invite a lot of pressure – while holding a largely defense orientated setup. While I commend David Moyes on his work at West Ham, the club still retreats into a defensive shell against the bigger sides. If you insert either of these two into a United starting XI, I firmly believe that we would encounter the same scenarios.
Another important factor to be taken into consideration is the lack of Scott McTominay. As I’ve touched upon in a recent article, I believe the England born Scotland international has an extremely important role to play in this new side. When we speak of the last piece of the puzzle, I’m compelled to make an argument for what we already have at our disposal. McTominay’s strength, pace and physicality, coupled with his burning desire for the badge, offer Solskjær his own on field voice. His tactical ability is massively underestimated, and like the list of aforementioned midfielders, I feel his true worth will forever go unnoticed by so many. For example, a fit Scott McTominay against Newcastle would have offered so much in defence, as well as transitioning from defence to playmaker Pogba.
The point I’m making is that although it’s easy to vent frustration, while ignoring what’s unfolding, it’s extremely important to analyse every aspect. There’s an argument being made that a deeper lying Pogba is negating his strengths in an attacking position. Instead, focus on the fact that he’s getting ball to feet in the opening stages of an attack. His passing ability is comparable to the best in the game. He has vision that rivals most and his technique has never been in question. Allowing him free roam in attacking build is tactically perfect.
Many disregard his worth, but use the Paul Pogba of 3 years ago in debate. This was during a time where he was largely the sole creative force in the side. Teams would double up on him and negate any form of effective transition. Those days are long gone, and focus needs to be aimed at where the club is now.
The Newcastle game featured three new additions to the starting XI – with all three making their first home starts of the season. Every other team is afforded a gelling in period and United should be no different. It’s not perfect, and there’s areas that require fine tuning. However, given the necessary bedding in period for any group of players, coupled with the return of McTominay, I’m confident that our current crop are very close to making a lot of naysayers quite unhappy.