Manchester United’s defeat to Aston Villa at the weekend highlighted the deficiency in the team’s play which has been threatening to rise to the surface all season.
The big problem stemmed from United’s midfield, which struggled to link or effectively build play and left the team’s attack too isolated.
We are now five games into the Premier League season and once again, we just don’t know what United’s best midfield is.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred midfield combination is Scott McTominay and Fred. But it is quite clearly not the best.
In scrappy away games perhaps. But against teams who sit back and challenge United to unlock them, Fred and McTominay do not possess the sufficient creativity required, or the defensive nous to truly shut teams out.
There have been spells under Solskjaer when he has preferred the combination of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba together.
They took a step back as a duo last season, but Matic has shown promising signs this season after the Southampton game, and once Marcus Rashford is back from injury, Pogba will be moved away from the left wing.
In pre-season United used Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek against Everton and the team played well. In the Carabao Cup game last week against West Ham, they were adequate but United lost, with the Dutchman losing his man for the deciding goal.
Van de Beek has not really had enough of a chance. Solskjaer doesn’t trust him. It is tough for him to build up any rhythm or sharpness when he plays so irregularly.
Fred is often the scapegoat on social media. Some of the criticism is overblown, his pressing off the ball is an important quality Solskjaer likes, but the problem is on the ball. Fred is just as likely to break down one of United’s attacks as he is an opponent.
Five players and no winning combination
With McTominay, Fred, Pogba, Matic, and Van de Beek, United are in a situation where the numbers are there but the winning partnership is not.
Sure, United are well placed in the league and have finished top four for the past two seasons, but we are now at a point where we aspire for more. Supporters are growing restless and sceptical of whether this team has what it takes to win silverware this season.
The midfield is the most crucial area of the team. If it doesn’t work, then the defence comes under more pressure and concedes silly goals, and the attack fails to click.
Solskjaer has tried various combinations but does not have the answer. Habit would suggest he will revert to Fred and McTominay in midweek against Villarreal.
With the Spaniards likely to look to defend deep, Solskjaer would be playing into their hands by picking ‘McFred’. United fans are also tired of seeing it play out this way.
There is an appetite for change in midfield this week. But to what exactly? Does Solskjaer move Pogba back in alongside Matic? Is the answer to shift to a 3-5-2 with defensive players unavailable and go with Cavani and Ronaldo in attack? Should Solskjaer gamble and put Van de Beek in?
United are entering a must-win game and there are more questions than answers over the team’s midfield. Now into the third full season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it is not good enough to be in this position.
We might find a winning combination in midfield this week. It might even be McTominay and Fred. But what United have found often is that what works one week, often does not work on another.
Solskjaer must bear the blame for United’s midfield
Just as Solskjaer deserves the credit for all the good he has done, becoming the first boss to secure back to back top four finishes since Sir Alex Ferguson, he must accept responsibility when it doesn’t go right.
Solskjaer has had the resources to buy midfielders. The one he has bought, Donny van de Beek, he rarely uses.
Young midfielders like James Garner have not been given a chance. Solskjaer chose to prioritise game time for Andreas Pereira in pre-season ahead of the England under-21 international.
Fred and McTominay should be squad players rather than the weekly backbone of the side. Paul Pogba could play more of a central role if United chose to invest money in finding the right partner for him.
Nemanja Matic’s powers have been on the wane for the past 18 months and United chose to extend his contract rather than look for a replacement.
The position was skipped over this summer with focus elsewhere. It is a gamble which could backfire.
Affordable solutions like Ruben Neves or Yves Bissouma would not have broken the bank. Nor would have a move for Teun Koopmeiners, who ended up signing for United’s Champions League opponents Atalanta for just £12 million.
It is hard to believe that with United’s scouting network, that affordable solutions around Europe could not have been found, who would have either upgraded on Fred or Matic. Solskjaer just has not prioritised it highly enough.
So we are left entering a crucial Champions League game this week with no idea which combination is the team’s best midfield. It feels like this could go on all season.
The worst part of this is that it is all completely predictable. United fans have been watching this play out under Solskjaer, with it plainly obvious that the midfield needs addressing. On the manager’s part there is an element of stubbornness which has seen him refuse to do so.
Pogba’s contract uncertainty adds to the lack of clarity at the position. Solskjaer may get chances to change the situation and add to his options in the January transfer window or next summer. He just needs to ensure the team’s form improves rather than slides off, or he could find that the decision is not his to make.
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