Manchester United midfield dilemma: Do the Red Devils require a world-class playmaker or a ball winner?

It goes without saying that the midfield should be the priority for Manchester United in the upcoming transfer window.

Manchester United play Newcastle United in a file photo; Credit: Twitter/@ManUtd
By Karthik Raman | Mar 25, 2022 | 4 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

It’s difficult to pin the blame for Manchester United’s poor performances this season on a single factor. They have lacked the cutting edge in the final third, have frequently conceded goals at the back, have lacked fluidity in passing, and, most importantly, have missed the togetherness that allows a team to survive any situation on the pitch. The problems are aplenty for the Red Devils, with some questioning the lack of strategy in planning by the club’s hierarchy also being a reason behind the current downward trend. They all could be true, but there is one glaring hole that the recruitment team has failed to fill over the last few years, which is their lack of midfield control.

Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in the summer of 2013, Manchester United have lost their ability to dominate the opponents. Old Trafford, known as the Theatre of Dreams by passionate fans, has turned into Theatre of Nightmares over the last decade. Premier League teams no longer fear traveling to Manchester. The fear element has been one of the key aspects of Sir Alex’s reign. Now United are there for the taking and the rest of the league knows it. One of the main reasons behind the problem is their inability to control matches through their midfield.

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What is the priority – playmaker or a ball winner?

This is a difficult question for even the hardcore Manchester United supporter to answer. On one hand, United don’t have the players of Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick’s calibre anymore within the squad. These two former legends can control any match with their sublime passing game. But will they be enough to solve their problems? The answer is no.

Manchester United also lack an elite ball winner in the middle of the park. Famous Sir Alex’s sides always had those players who would make opposition players’ lives difficult on a football field. Be it Darren Fletcher or the legendary Roy Keane, United have never had a problem in that department prior to Ferguson’s departure from his role.

Now, the Reds are trying to make the best out of Fred and Scott Mctominay. Nemanja Matic can also be thrown into the mix, but the Serbian at 33 years of age has most often been used as a backup. All three have their own skillset. The work-rate of Fred and Mctominay are second to none. But they are not the top-tier ball winners that send fear into the opponent’s eyes. 

Matic has all but lost his pace, however, he is still the best passer among the three. Another positive is that the Serbian also sits in front of the centre-backs to provide decent cover. While they all have their own positives, none of them are capable of dominating an opposing midfield. Never mind a top four side, but United’s midfielders have struggled to dictate the play even against bottom-half teams.

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What Manchester United need?

With Paul Pogba’s contract set to expire this summer, it is looking very likely he will depart the club when the transfer window opens. However, not many Manchester United supporters will shed a tear seeing his departure cause Pogba has failed to live up to his huge expectations. If he leaves, it is important for United to find a suitable replacement in this window.

Ideally, United need two midfielders to rebuild that department. They need a deep-lying playmaker like Frenkie de Jong or Ruben Neves, and also require a top-class ball winner like Aurelien Tchouameni or Wilfred Ndidi. It is not clear whether they will be able to sign two players in the same position in the same window.

The only other alternative would be to find a modern version of Michael Carrick, who can provide cover for the backline and can also control the play effortlessly. Current examples would be in the form of Sergio Busquets, Rodri or Joshua Kimmich. It is an extremely difficult task in finding one player who can do both roles effectively, but United need to bring in atleast one world-class player to sort the midfield dilemma. 

They can also try giving promising young United midfielder James Garner – on loan at Nottingham Forest – a chance to stay at Old Trafford next season to help him ease into first-team action. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how Manchester United address this problem. But it goes without saying that the midfield should be the priority for the Red Devils in the upcoming transfer window.

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