“Manchester United needs a defensive midfielder!” That’s one of the messages that you are likely to read on all social media channels these days. In spite of a highly active transfer window, the Red Devils have neglected this position. But, is this the truth? Or, does Ole Gunner Solskjaer believe the role is already capably covered?
In this article, we look at the tactics, and the stats of United’s defensive midfielders and try to come to a conclusion.
Was a defensive midfielder required during the summer?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a fortunate man. He manages Manchester United having not held a similar position in the past. His club is willing to invest hundreds of millions in transfers. And, his managerial role is safe in spite of failing to win a trophy since taking charge of the team.
Did Manchester United require a defensive midfielder at the start of the season? Most analysts believed so. United required reinforcements in three major parts of the pitch. A central defender, a forward, and a defensive midfielder were needed.
United purchase Raphael Varane to play as a ball-playing defender. The club finally managed to clinch the signature of Jadon Sancho who plays as a winger or forward. And, they brought in Cristiano Ronaldo, today playing as a striker.
Although expected to bid for a defensive midfielder, the club opted to begin the season with their current roster. This may have already cost them the league title.
Matic, or Fred as Man United’s defensive midfielders?
The question is now whether Solskjaer was right. Does Manchester United already have the central midfielders ready to play as a pivot? The stats and tactics should help us answer this.
Nemanja Matic is, arguably, one of the best defensive midfielders in recent years in the EPL. He is well respected in the United squad, and trusted by the manager. However, the Serbian is now 33 years old and has undergone serious injuries.
During the past year, Matic’s stats show him as an average defensive midfielder. He makes 2.03 tackles per 90 minutes, with the best players in this position making around 5. His shots, assists, and xG are almost non-existent. However, he is still in the top 25% for clearances, blocks, and interceptions, all traits demanded from a defensive midfielder.
Fred often features ahead of Matic in the starting 11. The Brazilian has long been contested by supporters and championed by Solskjaer. Is Fred a bad footballer? Not at all. Much like Matic though, his contributions to the team’s attacking build-up are reduced. Fred completes around 63 passes per game, with a success rate of 88%. Only 5-6 of those are progressive passes. He takes 0.78 shots on goal and has a lot xA (expected assists).
Although not great in the air, Fred is among the best midfielders in the Premier League in terms of interceptions, clearances, tackles, and pressing. While he may lack finesse, the stats show Fred to be a dependable defensive player.
McTominay or Pogba in the defensive midfielder role?
Scott McTominay is one of Old Trafford supporters’ favorite players. His bravery and commitment have been lauded. These have earned him comparisons to Roy Keane. McTominay often partners with Fred in United’s double pivot system.
While the young Scottish player makes fewer tackles and presses less than Fred and Matic, he contributes more offensively. Scott McTominay takes 1.14 shots per 90 minutes, has an npxG (non-penalty expected goals) of 0.08, and makes 4.63 progressive passes. His work rate also helps him make a decent amount of interceptions and clearances.
There’s also Paul Pogba, a record signing for Manchester United back in 2016. While he has won the World Cup with France and is a highly famous player, Pogba hasn’t exactly tasted success with Manchester United.
Pogba can play a variety of roles. Often, Solskjaer chooses to use him almost as a left-winger. With France, he usually plays as a free 8, a roaming defensive midfielder. Pogba shines in terms of offensive contribution. He makes 2.04 dribbles per 90 minutes. He makes nearly 5 progressive passes per game and has 3.43 touches in the opposition’s penalty area. However, Pogba does much less in terms of pressing, tackles, interceptions, and blocks. His high level of physicality allows him to try and win the ball back. However, that Paul Pogba is better used in a role that highlights his attacking intent.
Can Donny van de Beek be a solution?
Finally, there’s the highly publicized matter of Donny van de Beek. United pursued the former Ajax Amsterdam playmaker with great interest. Although he arrived as a potential world-beater in Manchester, he has been given few opportunities by Solskjaer.
Donny van de Beek is an attack-minded player. However, he has played in a defensive midfielder position. His stats at United might not be enough to guarantee a correct verdict. The Dutchman is exceptional in terms of dribbles, pass completion, and progressive carries per 90 minutes. However, his figures are below average when it comes to clearances or tackles.
It may just be that Donny van de Beek needs to play in a partnership with a defensive midfielder that can cover his attempts at progressing the ball. Considering United’s predicaments, it is surprising that their manager has not further attempted integrating Donny van de Beek, one of the most promising players in Europe.
What defensive midfielder should Manchester United try to transfer?
There are numerous players in the Premier League, and abroad, that could fulfill this job. Leicester City’s Boubakary Soumaré shines in this role. Atalanta’s Marten de Roon, PSG’s Idrissa Gueye, Lyon’s Maxence Caqueret are other great defensive midfielders. Even Morgan Schneiderlin, a former Man United player, is doing a good job at OGC Nice in Ligue 1. These players may not be available on the transfer market though.
At the time of writing, it is rumored that Manchester United continues to scout Declan Rice (West Ham United), Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), and Ruben Neves (Wolverhampton). All of these three could prove good options. Any of them might be highly pricey and will require United to sell current players. But, until the problem is solved, Manchester United may be left dreaming of further Premier League glory.
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