This is the penultimate instalment of our assessment of how prepared the Manchester United squad is ahead of this weekend’s Premier League kick-off. We’ve broken the squad down into five sections and already covered the goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders, giving a each a grade based on the quality and depth of José Mourinho’s options in each department.
Tomorrow, we’ll wrap this series up by looking at the strikers, but today we are assessing the attacking midfielders. As mentioned previously, there will be some overlap here, as some members of the squad may appear in multiple departments due to their versatility: for example, Daley Blind was included as both a defender and midfielder.
Attacking midfielders: Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Valencia, Andreas Pereira
The addition of Henrikh Mkhitaryan really has the potential to transform United’s attack this season; the Armian is pretty much the perfect creative attacking midfielder (as explained in this Four Four Two article by yours truly).
Mkhitaryan topped the assists chart in the Bundesliga last season while also bagging over 20 goals in all competitions. Most often, he was deployed on the right of a 4-3-3 formation by BVB boss Thomas Tuchel, but Dortmund’s system was so fluid that it would morph to form a 3-4-1-2 when they had possession, with Mkhitaryan drifting inside into the number 10 central attacking midfield position.
It is in the central zones behind the striker(s) that Mkhitaryan does his best work; he has unparalleled awareness when it comes to spotting the runs of team-mates, and slides through-balls with laser-guided accuracy. He is also blessed with terrific pace and dribbling skills, while able to shoot powerfully and accurately from distance with either foot. Put simply: he’s ace.
Now, it seems as though Mourinho favours a 4-2-3-1 formation at the moment, with Wayne Rooney as the number 10. In yesterday’s assessment of the midfielders, I discussed how Pogba would be best served by a 4-3-3 formation, and the same is true of Mkhitaryan.
If Mourinho is adamant that 4-2-3-1 is the way to go, then Mkhitaryan, or even Juan Mata, would be much better options than Rooney for the central attacking midfield spot. The England captain has a dreadful first touch, little positional discipline (his inclination to drop far too deep to receive the ball negates the job he is supposed to be doing), and he wants too long with the ball at his feet before releasing a pass.
Mkhitaryan’s speed of thought and awareness makes him a far superior choice for that role. Plus, the former Shakhtar Donetsk player won posession in the final third more than every player but one in the Bundesliga over the last three seasons, so if Mourinho wants to press high, Mkhi is the man for the job.
But when deployed on the right wing, as long as there is no number 10 blocking his path infield, Mkhitaryan can drift in off the touchline and pick up the ball unmarked in the central zones he thrives in. Furthermore, with Ibrahimovic’s propensity to drop deep from his number 9 position, Mkhitaryan is capable of breaking ahead of the ball and offering the veteran Swede an option of a killer pass.
Anthony Martial will have benefitted form getting a year of Premier League football under his belt, and the 20-year-old Frenchman will again be a dynamic and direct threat to opposition defences. The former Monaco player is well on his way to becoming one of the world’s best.
Jesse Lingard gets some flack from certain sections of United fans, and, in truth, he does fall a little short of the requisite quality to start every week for a top side. But with his work-rate and discipline, he is the kind of player that Mourinho will love. Expect to see Lingard start in games in which the opposition try to dictate the play from deep. The academy graduate will be the man to harass deep-lying playmakers and force errors from otherwise unflappable players. He’s not a world beater — despite two brilliant Wembley goals recently — and he probably never will be, but he serves a purpose and has earned his place.
Marcus Rashford make his first-team breakthrough as a striker, and he will deputise for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in that position this season. The 18-year-old could also find game time on the right wing, where his pace and dribbling ability could be a very useful weapon.
With three weeks of the transfer window remaining, it is highly unlikely that Mourinho will be bringing in any more attacking midfielders, but there are a couple who may yet be shown the exit door.
Juan Mata is the obvious one. The Spaniard is a fan favourite for his positive attitude and undoubtable dedication. But, in all honesty, his time at United so far has been a little underwhelming, and, while he still has a lot to offer, he should not be considered a first-choice starter ahead of the likes of Mkhitaryan and Martial. If he is happy to play a reduced role, he should be retained.
Memphis Depay has a lot to prove in his second season at United. The Dutchman flattered to deceive last year, and rarely even showed glimpses of the kind of talent he displayed for PSV. He needs to show he has what it takes to succeed at United, because so far, the jury is very much out.
Adnan Januzaj seems almost certain to leave on loan, with David Moyes keen to take him to Sunderland, while Ashley Young could also be allowed to leave.
But, all in all, Mourinho can be very happy with the level of quality and the variety of options he has in the attacking midfield positions.
Position grade: A