Manchester United’s focus ahead of the upcoming summer transfer window appears to be on the front and back lines, but the 3-1 defeat to Leicester City in the FA Cup last weekend showed they just as urgently need an upgrade in the middle of the park.
Reported interest in Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, and a plethora of centre-backs suggests Ed Woodward and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are prioritising the three positions United fans have understood to be weakest for quite some time.
And yet in Paul Pogba’s absence through February, it has slowly become clear that their midfield options beyond the Frenchman are not good enough to mount a title challenge next season.
Pogba is widely expected to leave either this summer or the next, and it would be unwise to rely on a player who hasn’t been on a hot streak since the middle of the 2018-19 season.
The Leicester game was final confirmation of the problem at hand, not just because Fred was directly at fault for two of the Foxes’ goals but because Brendan Rodgers’ midfield pair of Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans showed Solskjaer exactly what his team is missing.
Leicester’s second goal captured the sharp contrast between the teams’ midfields. It’s worth watching it back.
Tielemans picks up the ball in a relatively harmless position just inside the United half, his head swivelling quickly to assess what’s around him as he drifts between the visitors’ defensive lines; that’s the first action you won’t see from Fred, Nemanja Matic, Donny van de Beek, or Scott McTominay.
He takes one touch to control the ball and, with Matic quick to close him down, flicks it round the corner for Kelechi Iheanacho and spins behind the United midfielder in one fluid, line-breaking movement typical of Leicester’s verticality under Rodgers.
As he receives the ball back from Iheanacho, the pitch opens up for Tielemans, who ghosts past a flat-footed Fred and shoots into the far corner.
Here, we see the hesitancy, positional indiscipline, and disconnectedness of Solskjaer’s midfield. We also see the value of a driving box-to-box midfielder capable of creating – and scoring – out of nowhere.
A statistical comparison of Tielemans and Fred – United’s best box-to-box midfielder – reveals the difference between the two players.
According to WyScout, per 90 minutes Tielemans ranks higher than Fred for through balls (1.92 compared to 0.87), dribbles (2.22 to 1.42), passes to penalty area (2.55 to 1.34) and ‘smart passes’ (1.53 to 0.73), which measure “a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack”.
Tielemans also hits almost double Fred’s figure for ‘deep completions’ (0.93 to 0.5), a measure of passes targeted to within 20 metres of goal, and has scored six Premier League goals. United’s five central midfielders have only scored eight between them, and four of those were scored by Pogba.
Tactically, Solskjaer needs a piercing midfielder like Tielemans more than most managers.
United are widely renowned for playing without a coherent attacking structure, their game-plans lacking the detailed rhythms preferred by the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, or Thomas Tuchel.
Solskjaer favours an improvisational approach. This explains why they rely on Bruno Fernandes’ individuality, and why their matches so often appear to drift as players move casually and without a clear purpose.
United like to create low-tempo games built on a solid foundation, before relying on the ‘moments’ to win matches, and therefore they are prone to sluggish performances unless individuals can spark the game into life.
In other words, Tielemans’ sharp forward passes and quick turns – like the one-two ahead of his second goal – are needed at Old Trafford to prevent United’s football congealing.
At present, things are too often clogged in the middle of the park as Fred or Matic look sideways, slowing the tempo. For those hoping Van de Beek is the solution, the Dutch international is better taking delicate touches high up the pitch; he is more of a Dele Alli than a Tielemans.
United could also do with a new defensive midfielder in the Ndidi mould, and not only because Leicester’s Nigeria international is an obvious statistical upgrade on what they already have.
A destroyer like Ndidi is a vital part of dominating possession and, therefore, putting the opponent under constant pressure.
Again, the problem of drift that seems to affect Solskjaer’s tactics would be partially solved if they had a more effective tackler and possession recycler, who could help sustain attacks by breaking up counterattacks and pushing the ball back forward.
This is exactly what happened at Liverpool when Fabinho joined the club.
Klopp’s side struggled to maintain their tempo or pin the other team back, which led to territorially even matches and frequently dropped points – that is until Fabinho joined the club and turned them into a relentless machine.
That Liverpool have fallen apart in 2020-21 without Fabinho in his usual role proves the point.
It would be a mistake for United to focus solely on star players in the defensive and attacking lines this summer.
For Solskjaer’s broad-strokes tactical system to work, and for United to consistently create goalscoring opportunities throughout an entire campaign, they need upgrades in the middle of the park.
Ndidi and Tielemans would be the perfect pair.