While Manchester United has only played three preseason matches, we’ve now had a solid look at the team’s strategy going into the season. One main aspect of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new-look squad has been the midfield, which has potential to be one of the most dynamic in the Premier League.
Playing hybrid formations of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, Solskjaer has created three midfield roles that get the best out of his crop of midfielders and allow them to play in more natural positions. While Ole has not implemented a groundbreaking tactical plan, his willingness to build a system around the talent he has and the talent he wants to add, is commendable.
Starting with the defensive midfielders, Ole currently has Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matić, Fred, and James Garner at his disposal. Throughout United’s three preseason games, Ole has had his defensive midfielder stay relatively low on the field, protecting the back line and focusing on retrieving possession.
Between all the defensive midfield options, though, McTominay has been the one to stand out most at the position. The young Scot is playing more comfortably and confidently now that he has a full year of experience under his belt, and he fits the role that the team needs perfectly. McTominay is confident on the ball, physically strong, and can also play-make from deep, all of which are tools that United is going to need throughout the season.
McTominay currently has an edge over the other defensive-minded midfielders, but his inexperience is still an aspect of his game that could be an issue. While I don’t think it’ll stop him from being a starter, there will be stretches of inconsistency throughout the year that he’ll have to fight through. Nevertheless, he is still the best option United has and he should be the undisputed starter once the season begins.
The next midfield role that Ole has implemented is the box-to-box midfielder. This role was tailor-made for Paul Pogba, but Andreas Pereira has also shown he is capable of playing here if needed.
Unlike José Mourinho, who limited Pogba’s play by utilizing him too deep in the midfield, Ole is allowing Pogba to be a fluid presence on the pitch. The star Frenchman will have the liberty to join every attack, where he’ll surely thrive by being able to play in space and lead counter attacks.
Pogba will also be tasked with getting back on defense, where his size, strength, and tackling ability will be highlighted. In a box-to-box role, Pogba is able to optimize his abilities to find open players on the counter attack, which is sure to be one of Manchester United’s biggest strengths this coming season.
Additionally, Pogba will be utilized as the primary creator in the midfield. Throughout their preseason games thus far, Pogba has been running the show from midfield, as his teammates are getting him the ball as much as possible and allowing him to survey the field and make plays. By allowing him to break the formation on offense and join the attack, Pogba will have a plethora of chances to create goal-scoring opportunities.
The last midfield role that’s been implemented is the attacking midfielder, better known as the no. 10 role. Playing in a more advanced position, this role is for players that can create in tight spaces and make quick decisions on the ball. While United currently does not employ a world-class player at the position, the squad does have a collection of players that can functionally play the role.
Among these players are Juan Mata, Pereira, Jesse Lingard, and Angel Gomes. Thus far in the preseason, only Mata, Lingard, and Gomes have played minutes as a no. 10, all to varying degrees of success. In addition, United’s multitude of options may also expand, as they continue to be linked with a move for midfield maestro Bruno Fernandes.
Of the players they currently employ, United’s most experienced attacking midfielder is Mata, who played the role against Leeds in preseason. Playing as an attacking midfielder is Mata’s preferred position and allows him to play in his most natural role as a playmaker behind the front three, where he can create chances down the middle and feed wingers.
Unlike when he’s deployed as a winger, the no. 10 role should get the best out of him, but at 31 years old with waning speed and athleticism, he’s likely better off being a high-end rotational player.
Lingard also played as a no. 10 against Inter, where he seemed average at best. Lingard is another interesting option, as it was clear last season that he wasn’t being maximized playing on the wing, similar to Mata. Getting to roam freely behind the front three, Lingard is placed in a more natural position, where he’ll be a goal-scoring threat from midfield.
Additionally, having to work in tighter spaces will be beneficial for Lingard, as it’ll force him to dribble less (which he isn’t great at) and make him pass the ball quicker (he’s a much better ball mover). While I don’t expect him to play significant starting minutes this season, he could be a solid rotational piece. Ultimately, there’s hope that the role will allow Lingard to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.
Perhaps the most interesting option throughout the preseason has been Angel Gomes. After spending years as the crowned jewel of the United academy, Gomes is now ready to be a part of the first team on a consistent basis.
Gomes has played the no. 10 role throughout the preseason, where he’s shown the ability to function in tight spaces and make elite passing reads. Unlike United squads in the past, that seldom used an attacking midfielder down the middle, this iteration of the team has created a role that Gomes perfectly fits in.
Gomes is a prototypical no. 10, and his skillset will be enhanced if he’s able to get minutes throughout the season. He’s already proven that he’s better than his youth competition, and considering his upcoming contract expiration, United will need to give him ample opportunities to prove himself.
United are also still linked with a move for Portuguese star midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who would slot into the no. 10 role perfectly. Fernandes can do it all as an attacking midfielder: he can dribble, pass, create scoring opportunities, and score goals himself.
His creativity and goal-scoring ability would be an enormous plus for United’s midfield, and could be the key to making a push for the Premier League title. Adding Fernandes to a midfield trio that already has Pogba would thoroughly enhance United’s offense, and allow them to field two world-class players in midfield throughout the season. Considering the lack of creativity United has had in midfield since Paul Scholes retired, it would be a massive improvement for the squad.
While the system that Ole is implementing complements the offensive end perfectly, there’s still some questions concerning its sustainability on the defensive end. With so many players going forward, sizeable gaps are created in the midfield and only one defensive midfielder is left to deal with a possible counter attack. Of course, United have yet to be tested on that side of the field in preseason, but it’ll be something to keep an eye on throughout the season.
Ultimately, Manchester United will have an abundance of options in the midfield this coming season. Their mixture of experienced players, youth prospects, and world-class talent should be able to perform well throughout the season. While they can still use some reinforcements, being able to slot players into specific roles that highlight their abilities, along with having an organized midfield, will hopefully allow United to get the best out of their crop of midfielders.