Manchester United’s ambitions were on full display in their opening day win over Leeds United. 5 goals and a thorough thrashing of their traditional rivals was the perfect welcome back gift for a packed Old Trafford. Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, and Mason Greenwood ran rampant and sent the feel good factor through the roof. One week later a frustrating draw at Southampton brought the club and the red army back down to earth by exposing an all too familiar issue in the squad: lack of a quality defensive midfielder. It was a difficult game for Fred and Nemanja Matic, with Scott McTominay on the bench due to issues with fitness. Perhaps The Scotsman’s presence would have been preferred to the slow and error prone Matic, but we’ve seen the limits of his game as well. For three seasons now it has been clear that their services are insufficient for a team hoping to contend for the league and win cups, and though the rebuild under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has picked up serious steam the midfield has remained a hinderance to it’s progress.
Building for a title challenge is difficult, but it is regardless the expectation at Manchester United. With significant improvements made under Solskjaer at other positions and the arrival of marquee talents such as Sancho and Varane the club have an opportunity to be more competitive than any United team since the days Sir Alex Ferguson. They will regret not matching that ambition in the middle of the park by neglecting to sign a quality deep midfielder.
Simply put, a midfield base of McTominay, Fred, and Matic is good, but not great. The club showed ambition signing Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, but arguably the biggest need this summer was an upgrade in midfield. It has been evident for a while that Matic’s legs are gone, and McFred is a high work rate but ultimately limiting pivot for the 4-2-3-1 Solskjaer likes to employ. Pogba is effective out left, but it is often reported this summer that Solskjaer would like to have him in a more advanced midfield role as well as a left winger in a 4-3-3 formation. Someone who can single handedly offer a defensive screen in midfield and contribute in possession is not an easy ask, nor is it a cheap one in the modern transfer market, but it is the kind of piece that would go a long way in the club’s ambitions team building. This would also give Donny Van De Beek an avenue into the side, who is more suited to a 4-3-3 midfield and has struggled to adapt to any other position since arriving last season.
The rumored options in recent weeks have been regrettably meh, but even someone who doesn’t get the fans excited might be better than nothing this transfer window. Ruben Neves links continue, Declan Rice remains hopeful of a move to a big club, and Yves Bissouma is turning heads at Brighton. There are a few Premier League midfielders who could do the job, but there might be decent options abroad with a number of clubs desperate for cash after taking a financial hit during the Covid-19 pandemic. The bottom line is the options are out there, and it should be painfully obvious how big the need is now after another 90 minutes of struggling to assert any midfield control against weaker opposition. It could be another season of it too, and as United’s rivals grow stronger no less. Such an important part of the pitch must be reinforced if they are to match the ambitions of their manager.
More than in any recent season, Manchester United will truly regret neglecting this transfer need. Sancho and Varane were excellent additions who will help create a window of opportunity for the current side, a window that will be more difficult to capitalize on if the McFred pivot remains the best holding midfield option against all forms of opponent. Signing Messi and Mbappe as well this summer wouldn’t change that weakness in the squad.
Challenging for silverware has been the goal all along in the Solskjaer rebuild, a project which has fought tooth and nail to stay alive at times. It would be wasteful to let a team so talented at every other position go another season without a proper holding midfielder.