A crucial away game within a cauldron of hostility. An opposition team and fanbase fired up by a perceived injustice. Your first start in the Premier League at the tender age of 18. Being forced to babysit Scott McTominay.
These are all difficult realities Kobbie Mainoo was forced to contend with on Sunday against Everton. Yet the prodigiously talented youngster dealt with each of them as adroitly and neatly as he dealt with the ball.
Manchester United ran out 3-0 winners and Mainoo was at the heart of the display, demonstrating both his defensive nous with a brilliant last-ditch tackle to deny Idrissa Gueye an equaliser, as well as his offensive capability via a delicious lofted through-ball to Bruno Fernandes when being harried as the last man.
Mainoo consistently sought possession, unafraid to receive the ball as the deepest midfielder, and displayed the bravery to evade Everton’s press. He diligently tracked the opposition’s runs into United’s box and was strong and firm in every challenge.
It was a truly excellent midfield performance; the perfect example of doing the basics to a high level. This constitutes a far cry from many of United’s midfielders this season, who are high level players performing the basics abysmally.
Mainoo only played 72 minutes on Sunday, yet ranked highly across every metric a midfield should be analysed by. The only players to ‘outperform’ the 19-year old were those who played the full ninety.
The academy graduate touched the ball 61 times, ranking him fifth for United. His fellow academy graduate midfielder partner – McTominay – managed only 40 touches, despite playing over twenty minutes extra than Mainoo.
He also produced ten passes ending in the final third, a total only bettered by Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford. This was accompanied by twelve ‘carries’ – defined as moving the ball by five metres or more – which put Mainoo joint third amongst United players for that statistic.
He also made two clearances, two interceptions, won two aerial duels, three ground duels and made one blocked shot. His one tackle – on Gueye – denied a certain goal.
While none of these statistics jump out the way Alejandro Garnacho’s outrageous overhead kick does, they quietly offer United fans the exact type of midfield performance they have been starved of since Michael Carrick retired.
Under the instruction of Erik ten Hag, Old Trafford officials spent almost the entire summer last year chasing Frenkie De Jong, trying to convince the Dutch midfielder to swap Barcelona for Manchester. It proved a pointless endeavour.
Yet this pursuit indicated the type of player Ten Hag wanted at the base of his midfield. Though Casemiro was ultimately signed as an alternative to De Jong at the end of that summer, he has always felt an awkward fit in this deep-lying role. This awkwardness has only grown more acute this season.
Mainoo feels the complete opposite.
The 19-year old offers the exact profile Ten Hag demands from his deepest midfielder – to act as the conduit between defence and attack, unperturbed in the face of opposition advances. His comfortability on the ball, and his intelligent distribution of it, are the exact selection of attributes Ten Hag’s midfield unit have been lacking this season.
And this assessment is not merely an exaggerated one from a United fan almost shocked by what a competent midfielder looks like. The accolades Mainoo received across the media on Sunday indicate they see what we saw.
Match of the Day dedicated a section of their analysis of the United-Everton game to Mainoo. “He looks like a senior pro”, Iain Wright claimed, while Danny Murphy detailed how the Everton players “couldn’t get near him at times.”
The assessment held true on Sky Sports where Roy Keane – often the harshest of critics for United – praised Mainoo as “brave”, contending he “looked a Man United type of player.” Gary Neville offered the opposite view, but one which indicates agreement, stating the youngster “looked like a Manchester City player”; the type Pep Guardiola would love to have at his disposal.
While Mainoo’s level felt like breaking news to these two outlets on the weekend, The Peoples Person had confidently predicted such a moment occurring back in September. Mainoo’s skillset and temperament – which belies his years – made him appear the perfect antidote to the sickly performances United’s midfield were delivering this season. And if not but for a desperately unfortunate injury in pre-season, we may have been privy to this type of simple midfield brilliance far sooner than the end of November.
Either way, it makes for a nice early Christmas present. Frenkie who?