Today we’re going to focus on some midfield transfer targets that Manchester United have been linked with recently: what they bring to the table, and who may be the best fit. This isn’t about the likes of Jack Grealish or James Maddison, or other attacking players. We are specifically looking at the deeper midfielders that are reportedly of interest to United.
A few weeks ago the good people over at Fbref released a massive update to their website that, through a partnership with Statsbomb, has made tons of data publicly available for the first time ever. That update has allowed me to vastly upgrade my personal radars to be far more accurate in evaluating players (a full primer on the stats in my radars and the parameters can be found here).
Data and statistics are not a replacement for good old-fashioned scouting. They offer you an extra tool to capture something that your eyes might miss (eyes tend to be incredibly biased), but they have to work in conjunction with other tools. While data is the lead analysis point here, I’m not writing this blind — the point of this is to be more researched and nuanced than your typical “transfer rumors” post that simply says United are interested in this player who scored x amount of goals. I’ve watched videos of these guys, I’ve watched full matches, and combined that with the numbers.
I should also include this disclaimer: this entire post is being written under the assumption that Paul Pogba will be staying at Old Trafford.
Denis Zakaria - Borussia Monchengladbach
The 23-year-old Swiss midfielder is exactly what United need. Someone to sit, provide a screen for the defense, and most importantly allow Pogba and Bruno Fernandes the freedom to get forward and create.
Not only is Zakaria very positionally sound but he’s very good on the ball. Just like Nemanja Matić, he excels at protecting the ball and keeping possession. Unlike Matić, he’s very quick to get rid of it and move it forward. For a team that likes to hit teams on the break, that first pass is crucial.
Zakaria is also very good with the ball at his feet. His 2.17 successful dribbles per 90 are more than any midfielder United currently have and his 74.6% success rate show it’s not exactly a risk when he tries it.
This would add another element to United’s attack. Currently when Matić wins the ball back, his primary objective is get the ball to Pogba, Fred, or Bruno (just as Fred always looks to get it to Bruno quickly) and let them progress the ball. It’s not particularly bad, but it’s predictable, and eventually defenses can focus on locking on to those players. Just like Luke Shaw’s underlapping runs from a back three add a layer of unpredictability to United, Zakaria’s ability to carry the ball himself would do the same, keeping defenses honest.
Most importantly is Zakaria’s age. He’s 23 and already has three years of Bundesliga experience. He won’t develop as much over the next three years as the previous three, but he’s still developing.
We know Matić is going to be back next year. He earned as much with his performances this season and as a depth piece, he’ll be great. That’ll give Zakaria a year to settle in, and over the course of the season establish himself over Matić in the pecking order. In two years, Zakaria will be turning 25 and ready to be the first choice midfielder.
Thomas Partey - Atlético Madrid
Partey has a €50 million release clause and if he was the final piece in this puzzle — the difference between United being frontrunners for the title or not — this would be a no brainer. But he’s not the final piece, and thus it makes it more complicated.
Some solid performances in the Champions League and a huge performance at Anfield have suddenly shot Partey’s name to the top of many United fans’ wishlist. But here’s the thing: it’s very difficult to really evaluate Atlético’s players given their ultra defensive style.
Partey’s game at Anfield is a particularly good example. His five tackles, five blocks, four interceptions, and seven clearances were enough actions to make his defensive effort really stand out to anyone. But this was a game where Liverpool had 71% of the possession. They took 408 touches in the final third, a whopping 38% of their total touches.
This was a game that was tailor-made for Partey’s defensive numbers to stand out. When his numbers are adjusted for possession, it’s a different story: only 1.78 tackles per game and 1.64 interceptions. Not bad, but also not better than Matić, Scott McTominay, or Fred this season.
But again with Atlético the numbers will never tell the entire story. They’re a team that likes to sit back, and thus, it’s hard to truly gauge what their midfielders can do on the ball because Atlético don’t like to have it. Partey’s numbers are good in that regard, but how it remains to be seen how he would fare playing in a team that has to break down an opponent — which, more often than not, is what United have to do.
The biggest strike against Partey is his age — he’ll turn 27 in June. Like I said, if he was the final piece, then United should go for it. However he’s not, and it’s important to look at where United are and where they need to be.
United are still probably a year away from truly competing for the title. Given where they are this year, next year they need to be a bonafide top four team, not a team competing for the top four, but a team firmly entrenched in there. Liverpool and Manchester City will likely come back to earth a bit next year and thus United should be pushing them, but unless they really fall, United won’t be overtaking them next year.
In two years that’s different and that’s when Partey’s age becomes a factor. At the start of the 2021-22 season Partey will be 28, Pogba will be 28, and Bruno Fernandes will be 26. For a player like Fernandes 26 should be his peak year, while 28 would normally see players like Pogba and Partey at the end of their primes, but just starting to decline.
All those players hitting their early decline at the same time would legitimately shorten United’s window to win and necessitate a big overhaul in a short period of time. A player like Zakaria would help prolong that window, as you could replace Pogba and Fernandes over time while phasing in replacements.
Yes, United have James Garner and Dylan Levitt coming through who will be in their early 20s by this time. They are only prospects. The odds of Garner or Levitt emerging as one of the best midfielders in the league/Europe are slim. The odds of both doing it are minuscule. We need to operate under the assumption that, at best, they’ll become useful squad players.
In any case, Partey is reportedly keen on joining Arsenal this summer, which could be a blessing in disguise for United.
Declan Rice - West Ham
Forget for a second about the £70 million price tag on Rice’s head. Wipe out the massive overhype that the player gets because he’s young and English. Strip that away and simply take into account a man of his skillset and size. Would that make United better?
The answer is unequivocally yes. In fact, if United had him this season, they’d easily be in the top four.
Just look at the following three games: Sheffield United away, Aston Villa at home, and Wolves at home. All three games saw United be short midfielders through injuries or suspensions and have to start Andreas Pereira next to Fred. The results of that were disastrous, and against Wolves, Solskjaer had to swap Pereira with Bruno Fernandes after only 30 minutes, taking away United’s ability to attack.
In the PL United have conceded four goals in— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) April 29, 2020
the 193 minutes Fred and Pereira have played together as a midfield pair. That's 1.87 per 90. Strip out those 208 minutes and United have conceded 0.97/90. You gonna tell me they don't beat Sheff or Villa with Declan Rice? #MUFC https://t.co/bOJufemec9
Swap out Pereira for Declan Rice in those three matches and are United drawing those matches 3-3, 2-2, and 0-0? Most certainly not. It’s safe to say at least two of those would have turned into wins (factor in Bruno playing further forward). That’s an additional four points, which would take United above Chelsea.
If United had a player with Rice’s exact skillset in their academy fans would be going crazy for him.
That’s what would make signing him a no-brainer. He’s only 21 years old, two years younger than McTominay. And we’ve seen how much McTominay, Matić, and Fred have all improved under this coaching staff. At best, he’d become the long term replacement to Matić, at worst he’d become much needed depth.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where we can just ignore that £70 million price tag. And that price tag is a non-starter for Rice. You don’t touch it with a 10 foot pole. If that price was cut in half, then we can start talking, but £70 million? Get out of here.
Go sign Zakaria.