It’s no secret that Manchester United lack depth across the pitch. While the club has finally begun taking the long overdue steps towards bolstering the back line — adding Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire, and locking down Luke Shaw, David De Gea, and Victor Lindelöf on long term deals — the midfield has been sorely neglected.
The club sold defensive midfielder Marouane Fellaini in January and saw one of his counterparts, Ander Herrera, walk away this summer, without signing a replacement for either player. In turn, Scott McTominay has been the main beneficiary, seizing the opportunity to fill in their shoes with his improved performances this season, while Fred has looked sharp in his recent cameos. Nemanja Matić offers an experienced option, and Axel Tuanzebe is also capable of playing in an auxiliary holding role if necessary.
Attacking midfield, however, is a completely different story: United didn’t lose anyone in that position, but they didn’t really have anyone either. Jesse Lingard has been the first choice to spearhead a midfield triangle, but the Mancunian has had a dismal extended run of form, failing to register a goal or assist since December, 2018. Lingard’s performances, and United’s subsequent struggle to score goals, has seen the club linked with a host of players, headlined by Bruno Fernandes and most recently James Maddison.
United fans across the globe were engrossed in the Bruno Fernandes saga all summer, and were ultimately left seething when a transfer never materialized. The Sporting CP player is an exciting prospect, having scored 20 goals and dishing out 13 assists in Liga Nos last season, and he was not shy about expressing his desire to make the jump to the Premier League. He also admitted that he admired United, but only included the Red Devils among a host of other top clubs, and never demonstrated a unique aspiration to play for the club in particular. Without that commitment to succeed here, the culture shock can be incredibly challenging to overcome, especially for a player who does not speak English (a la Angel Di Maria). Bruno would command a hefty fee, and there is no way to know how quickly he would settle in Manchester and adjust to the level of the Premier League. All things considered, the Portuguese would have been a big risk, and right now Manchester United cannot afford to take big risks.
The club’s decision makers seemed to have reached that same conclusion, and after initial disappointment at the lack of a superstar arrival, the fans are beginning to get on the same page as well. Both groups now have their eyes on Leicester City’s James Maddison.
Maddison scored the game-winning goal — his first of the season — in the Foxes’ 2-1 defeat of Tottenham this weekend, and through six games Maddison’s stats reveal that he is primed to beat his return of seven goals and seven assists from last campaign. Maddison is currently averaging an aggressive 3.3 shots and 3.5 dribbles per game, up from 2.3 and 1.4 respectively. To put those numbers into perspective, Bruno took 3.6 shots and dribbled less than once per contest during his eye-catching 2018/19.
Maddison also has a higher pass accuracy and is dispossessed fewer times per 90 minutes than is Bruno. The Portuguese does blow Maddison out of the water in long balls per game, registering 4.3 to Maddison’s 2.2, however this revelation highlights Bruno’s tendency to drop deep in the midfield, which could see him crowd the same space as Paul Pogba. Maddison prefers to play higher up the pitch, and would be the disciplined creative link between the midfield and attack that United are so desperately missing.
To augment the case for James Maddison, the Englishman fits the mold of the new wave at United down to a T. At 22 years old — three years younger than Bruno — he has not yet established himself as a world class player, meaning he will be hungry to work. He has proven himself to be capable in the Premier League and has already developed chemistry with Maguire, Lingard, and Marcus Rashford, and, maybe the most crucial point of all, he is a Manchester United supporter. On multiple occasions Maddison has spoken about growing up a Red, his adoration of Cristiano Ronaldo, and his memories of United beating Bayern Munich to win the Treble. As fate would have it, Maddison even made his Premier League debut at United, humbly stating afterward, “There is no bigger stage than Old Trafford.”
Maddison is the archetypal player to continue the rebuild under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he has all the tools to succeed at the highest level. He is a promising British talent, and has the desire and understanding of what it means to wear the Red shirt. If the Manchester United hierarchy is serious about returning to the pinnacle of football, James Maddison must be at the top of their list.