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Manchester United midfield: Why ‘McFred’ is not the answer

by Raj Dholakia

Manchester United have started their 2021-22 campaign off rather poorly, raising more questions than answers.

Despite having an excellent summer, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side has failed to deliver consistent performances on the pitch.

The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho would otherwise amount to a perfect transfer window.

However, many believed that signing a defensive midfielder should have been United’s priority.

Scott McTominay and Fred start as a double-pivot in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 formation for the majority of matches. Though competent, neither of them have the natural ability to thrive in that role.

The midfield forms the engine room of a team. A midfielder’s job is to progress the ball up the pitch while also helping the team during the defensive transition.

A weak midfield will often get exposed against stronger opposition, something which repeatedly happens with United.

Balance

One of the overlooked flaws of United’s midfield is the balance.

In Bruno Fernandes, Solskjaer has an extremely attacking number 10 who almost plays as a shadow striker.

Bruno thrives in this position, scoring plenty of goals and providing key assists. However, in doing so, the Portuguese often loses possession of the ball.

To facilitate a player like him, Solskjer must have two midfielders capable of keeping hold of the ball, allowing Bruno to play his natural game.

By deploying McTominay and Fred behind Bruno, United often fail to dominate the midfield even against weaker teams.

Attack

Most of United’s goals come from moments of individual brilliance or counter-attacks. Solskjaer’s side often struggles against a low block due to the midfield’s inability to recycle possession in and around the opposition third.

During the buildup, neither McTominay nor Fred offer support to the centre backs to receive the ball.

The following example illustrates the same:

This slow buildup allows the opposition defenders to maintain their shape and deal with United’s forwards without any difficulty.

The attackers are often starved of service and are then blamed by many for their lack of goals.

Defence

In a recent press conference, Solskjaer defended his use of the duo, claiming that they help breaking up the play.

The Norwegian clearly trusts them the most defensively out of all his midfielders at United.

But, the perception of them being good defensively is a myth.

United have time and again conceded goals due to Fred’s misplaced passes or McTominay’s awful positioning.

A shocking stat shows that the pair rank the lowest for defensive duels compared to all of the Premier League’s midfielders.

Not their fault

‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’ This quote is apt for United’s current situation.

After a point, Solskjaer and his coaching staff must take the blame for the baffling team selections and underwhelming performances.

McTominay has shown glimpses of his goalscoring ability around the opposition box and would make for a good box-to-box midfielder.

On the other hand, Fred brings energy and tenacity to the midfield, often making ball recoveries.

Neither of them has been playing in their preferred position due to Solskjaer’s reluctance to change tactically.

Nemanja Matic is the only natural defensive midfield at the club. Even at 33, he has most of the attributes required to play the role successfully.

Solskjaer must learn to evolve tactically and understand his players’ strengths and weaknesses.

A difficult October and November await United, who must get their act together before a crucial period in the season.

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