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What is wrong with Manchester United’s midfield?

by Red Billy

Luck has not always been on Manchester United’s side but it certainly was in their 2-1 victory against Watford on Saturday. They were not necessarily outclassed, but certainly outplayed, for most of the 90 minutes against a side that United should be comfortably beating at Old Trafford. Leading up to the game, I was hoping that Olé Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent appointment might bring a sense of confidence and groundedness to the side. But as soon as the game got underway, those hopes were brushed aside as easily as an Ashley Young tackle and I was left once again staring at a team that just doesn’t seem to be able to dig in and make things happen.

Sure, there were flashes of inspiration and brilliance, when an occasional interchange of flicks and tricks between Mata, Martial, Pogba and Rashford briefly lit up the stadium. Those are the moments that Solskjaer has brought back to the fans; the moments of expressiveness that Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho had stamped out of the Manchester United players, partly perhaps because it’s not “percentage football” and partly because the players were too scared to make a mistake.  That moment of inspiration should be the hard part, but for this team, the hard part seems to be simple grit and aggression and the basic passing that’s required to transition from defence to attack and to control the game for any reasonable length of time.

Few would argue that there is a lack of class in Manchester United’s defence, especially when Victor Lindelof is not playing. In Smalling, Jones and Ashley Young, we have three committed players who they did their jobs to the best of their abilities on Saturday, but they are hardly Beckenbauer, Vidic and Puyol. There is no majesty. There is no leadership. There is no elegance bringing the ball out of defence, or fear factor. If Jonesey had Vidic’s chant, it would probably be “Phil Jones, whoa. Phil Jones, whoa. He comes from Pre-e-ston.   He’ll fucking look stressed and fall over.”

But for me, the biggest problem area on Saturday was in midfield. Nemanja Matic was my vote for Player of the Year last season, but there have been way too many average performances in the current campaign and against Watford I honestly can’t think what difference there would have been had there just been 10 men on the field. The purpose of playing a dedicated and relatively static defensive midfielder is purely and simply to protect the defence. United’s defence just was not protected against Watford by Matic in any way, shape or form.

Why still under Solskjaer are we playing home games against supposedly lesser teams with this kind of ultra-defensive midfielder anyway? Surely we’d be better in such games with a  box-to-box player such as Fred, or even switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation, re-introducing the number 10 role? I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but I think we were a better side when McTominay was filling in for Matic, because he has more energy, is a better passer of the ball and was able to get up and join the attack more than Matic can.

Ander Herrera’s performance against Watford was another major disappointment. Are we ever going to see, on any consistent basis, the kind of play that won him the Player of the Year award in 2016/17? Perhaps it’s the system that is not playing to his strengths, as he seems to be a little lost in this current role, pushed slightly right and rear of centre in a kind of no man’s land position where he can’t stamp his authority on the game in the way we know he can.

Pogba, too, was quiet and unimpressive on Saturday, but in fairness to him, he is the more forward player of these three, and he just was not given the ball often enough. Could he work harder to go and retrieve the ball himself? Yes, he could. But then, so could Messi.

What is needed in Manchester United’s deep midfield right now is more mobility, energy and aggression. What price a Yaya Touré type character in there right now? Manu Petit or Patrick Viera? Schweinsteiger at his peak? What price another Bryan Robson? I guess this is what José Mourinho had in mind when signing Fred. Maybe the very player that United needs is sitting on the bench.

Should Solskjaer just go for it with the Brazilian – give him a proper run in the side, and give Matic a rest? It would be a gamble, because Fred has looked a little off the pace and has made some costly mistakes, in particular the foul on Lacazette which gave Arsenal a penalty in United’s recent game at the Emirates. Solskjaer must weigh up how many points might be lost in Fred’s Premier League school fees versus how many points might be gained by including the mobility, energy and aggression he offers.

For me, it’s time to take that gamble. Solskjaer needs to know if he can trust Fred and if the player can’t establish himself by the end of the season, then another signing will be needed. If that’s too bold even for Olé, what about McTominay in the DM role against Wolves, with Fred and Pogba ahead of him? They surely can’t do any worse than Saturday’s midfield, and with Barcelona around the corner, something needs to be done urgently.

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