Manchester United’s midfield is not working – what’s missing? – The Guardian

Erik ten Hag needs solutions to address an unbalanced midfield that left Casemiro exposed against Wolves and Tottenham
The current feeling is a familiar one for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United. Their season is just two games old and performance levels have been markedly below expectation, as players grapple with the manager’s tactical demands. Just as they did 12 months ago – after damaging defeats to Brentford and Brighton in a stuttering start to Ten Hag’s reign – United find themselves under the microscope.
They were fortunate in their league opener against Wolves, ceding 23 shots but somehow escaping with a smash-and-grab victory. They were brighter, initially, at Tottenham, but in the second half became overwhelmed by Ange Postecoglou’s energised side. United’s dysfunctional midfield is taking the brunt of criticism from supporters and pundits, with questions surrounding the £55m acquisition of Mason Mount and former captain Gary Neville anticipating “big problems” if no more midfield signings are made. So whereas Ten Hag was able to find a near-perfect short-term solution with the addition of five-times Champions League winner Casemiro a year ago, the club are struggling to find the answers this time. What are Ten Hag’s options?
The manager’s desire to recruit a defensive midfielder before the 1 September summer transfer deadline is well documented. Ten Hag covets the signing of Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat, yet the club’s position is that they must raise further funds from sales before the 26-year-old’s move can be accelerated. Fred has been sold for £12.9m to Fenerbahce, but West Ham’s £30m offer for Scott McTominay failed to meet United’s asking price, while Donny van de Beek remains for sale but without any apparent suitors. All of this leaves Amrabat, by all accounts keen on the move, in limbo.
The club may well get their ducks in a row in the coming week. But would the Moroccan, who impressed in his country’s run to the World Cup semi-finals last year, prove a panacea to United’s midfield malaise? Against Wolves and Spurs, Casemiro was left alarmingly exposed in front of the back four. Thus, another No 6 such as the Fiorentina linchpin would seem rational. Amrabat, however, was initially targeted by United as a backup (albeit an elite one) for Casemiro’s position, to allow the 31-year-old some respite amid a packed fixture schedule. Given Ten Hag’s preference to persist with just one holding player and Amrabat being a roughly similar profile to Casemiro – strong, press-resistant, more comfortable sitting deep – he and United would need to adapt to each other.
Another player linked to the club is Bayern Munich’s Ryan Gravenberch, who is more of an all-rounder and could fill that problematic No 8 spot in Ten Hag’s team, in which Mount currently looks an awkward fit. But such a move remains unlikely and time is running out to explore other options.
United’s formation has rarely changed under Ten Hag. Only on occasion last season, against higher calibre opponents, did the coach switch to a 4-2-3-1 from his usual 4-1-4-1 with Fred brought in alongside Casemiro against the likes of Manchester City, Barcelona and Liverpool. The Dutchman wants United to press high from the middle, with Mount’s arrival further indicating the manager’s desire for two high-energy No 8s, as popularised by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. It was hoped Mount would prove a more dynamic version of Christian Eriksen alongside Fernandes but he’s been peripheral in his first two matches. There’s plenty of time for the former Chelsea man to adjust, although he’s been sidelined for the next two games with a “small complaint”.
A possible workaround, to add steel to United’s midfield while retaining both Mount and Fernandes in the middle, could be a diamond shape. The two No 8s could play either side of Casemiro, with a No 10 (potentially Eriksen) at the tip of the apex and willing runners such as Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford further forward. It would at least bring an extra body into the centre of the park without calling upon the unfancied McTominay or Van de Beek.
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An exciting option for United fans is waiting in the wings in the form of Kobbie Mainoo. The Stockport-born academy product is only 18 and was limited to just three senior appearances last season, but impressed on United’s pre-season tour of the US. It’s almost certain the midfielder, adept on the ball and likened to Paul Pogba and Jude Bellingham, would have been named in the matchday squads for United’s opening two matches had it not been for an ankle injury sustained in pre-season. He could be out for another month.
Ten Hag said: “I don’t want to raise expectations too high” after Mainoo caught the eye in the 2-0 win over Arsenal in New Jersey a month ago, but it seems the youngster is being earmarked for a semi-regular role in midfield when he returns. He’s got the attributes to play just in front of Casemiro, with either Mount or Fernandes shifted to the right. Yet relying on an 18-year-old to plug a gap in the absence of a marquee signing would be a concern for some, especially those critical of the Glazers’ investment in Ten Hag’s first team.


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