Although Manchester United have finished second in the Premier League this season (2020–21), their loss to seventh place Villareal in the Europa League Final was still concerning and has marred what has been an improved season. The loss exposed the many issues that the Manchester United squad still have: a lack of depth on the bench, a weak center-back partnership, the lack of a consistent, great right winger, and poor defensive midfielders.
The most pressing issue for United currently is the defensive midfield position. While Man United have players that can do a satisfactory job at the center-back and right wing positions, the defensive misfield position is an urgent need. Nemanja Matic — the only true defensive midfielder on the roster and who Manchester United signed to a three year contract last year, keeping him at the club till 2023— has shown apparent signs of his age through his major drop-off in ability and availability this past season. In order to make up for Matic this season, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has placed Scott McTominay and Fred in a midfield pivot hasn’t really worked well at all. This partnership has shown a lack of offensive creativity and defensive inconsistency. Therefore, United need to invest into an elite defensive midfielder to bolster their overall defense and squad as a whole.
In this article I will rank the my top targets for the defensive midfielder position in the Manchester United starting eleven. Each of the players that I am selecting in this list are players that could be inserted into the starting lineup right away, not long-term, younger prospects. I am especially looking at players that can be crucial to the squad both right now and in the future.
Manchester United have expressed interest in Declan Rice since 2019, attempting to buy him in last summer’s transfer window. However, the 22-year-old Englishman remains at West Ham and with Frank Lampard — who also expressed interest in Rice in 2020, sacked from Chelsea — United have a better opportunity in 2021 to sign Rice.
Rice would be the perfect signing for United. An all-around player, Rice has demonstrated elite defensive and offensive abilities. Adding Rice to the starting eleven would strengthen the already solid Manchester United defense, while he would also provide support and spacing alongside Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. However, the Hammers’ manager, David Moyes, has stated his refusal to sell Rice, and West Ham might want to retain Rice for their 2021–22 Europa League campaign, only their 5th European football campaign since the 1999–2000 season. Compounded with Rice’s age and the "English tax," valuations for Rice are very high, varying from as low as £70m to up to £100m.
The 24-year-old Nigerian international also proves to be another player United should target this summer for the defensive midfielder position. Although hampered by a shorter-term injury this past season, Ndidi still managed to make a significant impact at Leicester City, tackling with a success rate of 66% and completing 61 interceptions. A physical player, Ndidi thrives in a role where he can primarily focus his energy on defense, a role that United could provide him with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes already able to do the bulk of the offensive work on the midfield side. In addition, Ndidi is also a versatile player with his ability to also play at center-back, excelling in this position when called upon by Brendan Rodgers.
In this 2021 summer transfer window, Ndidi might be a tangible option because of Leicester’s reported interest in Lille midfielder Boubakary Soumare. Although Ndidi will still be very pricy at around £70m, with this potential addition in Soumare to the Foxes’ midfield, Leicester might be a little more lenient in negotiations. In addition, the lack of Champions League football in the 2021–22 season might disincentive Ndidi to stay at Leicester City.
Wolverhampton’s Ruben Neves is another possible option for United’s starting defensive midfielder position. Since joining Wolves in 2017 Neves has been a consistent fixture in Wolves’ starting lineup, being an integral piece to their promotion run in the 2017–18 season. Similar to Rice, Neves is also an elite all-around player, chipping in 5 goals and an assist while intercepting 65 balls in the Premier League this past season.
Wolves are also looking to possibly sell Ruben Neves, too. According to football site 90min, Fosun International, the parent company of the Wolverhampton Wolves, "are looking to restructure their commitment to the club, and […] super agent Jorge Mendes (the agent responsible for assembling most of the Wolves’ squad) has been instructed to find buyers and arrange potential deals for some of their top players." Neves himself is also aiming for a greater challenge in his club career after spending four years at Wolves. Neves should also be more affordable for United, with Wolves valuing him at just north of £30m.
Brighton midfield standout, Yves Bissouma, is also a reasonable candidate for the defensive midfield position at United. Bissouma is a top defender in the Prem, completing 64 interceptions and 104 tackles this season, with strength in passing, as well. Bissouma would make a midfield, already with outstanding offensive talent in Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, even more deadly.
In this case, United do have leverage, with the 24-year-old Mali international requesting to leave the Seagulls in the summer transfer window. Arsenal legend, Ian Wright, has also encouraged Bissouma to join Manchester United over other competing buyers: "you look at United and what United are on the cusp of doing, it’s a much more attractive proposition right now, much more." Valued at just £15m, Bissouma looks to be an underrated, but promising, prospect for Manchester United’s midfield.
A young, breakout star in Eduard Camavinga could be United’s next holding midfielder. Camavinga and his camp have demonstrated their desire to move on from Rennes to a bigger club through Camavinga not signing a contract extension with Rennes. Additionally, Camavinga’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, has said that the midfielder "can play next year in the Premier League. He is that good." Barnett also speaks about the Frenchman’s resilient and tenacious character, important traits to have in a defensive midfielder: "his character is amazingly strong. He is not your average 18-year-old. […] He’s a lovely boy and I think he’s going to be a superstar."
On the pitch, the 18-year-old Frenchman displays great skill in his accurate passing and his tackling, but the price tag for this youngster’s talents will be very expensive at about £50m.
Overall, there are many younger defensive midfield talents available to Manchester United, especially in the Premier League. While all of these players are rather pricy, a substantial investment in the weakest position in the starting eleven at United would be the best decision Manchester United could make this summer. However, the direction and future progress of the club will ultimately remain in the hands of Glazer family, Ed Woodward, and the rest of the management at Manchester United.