A gaping hole in the middle: Manchester United's midfield woes return to haunt them again

Despite dominating the possession, the Red Devils failed to control the tempo of the game, thereby settling for a draw at St Mary’s.

Manchester United midfielder Fred in action against Southampton; Credit: Twitter@ManUtd
By Karthik Raman | Aug 23, 2021 | 3 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

Manchester United’s thumping 5-1 victory over Leeds United in their first Premier League match of the new season had Old Trafford buzzing. Critics were quick to label United as ‘title favourites’ and the mood around the famous old stadium was sheer joy. Fast forward a week and a gritty Southampton side brought the high-flying travelling fans back to earth. The Saints took the lead in fortuitous manner after a Che Adams’ shot deflected off Fred beyond keeper David de Gea in the first half. United’s response was swift in the second period. Good work by Paul Pogba led to Mason Greenwood scoring the equaliser five minutes before the hour mark. With momentum on their side, the visitors were expected to get all three points.

But for some reason, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side never managed to find their rhythm in the second half. It was something that even left their manager puzzled. “Mason scores a very good goal. He didn’t have one of his best days, but he still contributes and when Jadon [Sancho] came on, I thought he looked really sharp for the first 10-15 minutes, but the whole team fell away a bit and the last 15 minutes we didn’t play particularly well,” Ole said after the match.

A major hole in the midfield

In all honesty, United did not produce a drab performance. But they were neither spectacular. These are games in which former manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s side would normally find a way to get the decisive second goal. Ferguson’s expertise was in pushing the team to find an unlikely winner in a match where they are not playing at their hundred percent. But Solskjaer was unable to do the same on Sunday and that was mainly down to United’s midfield.

Manchester United have one of the strongest teams on paper, with world-class players occupying several positions in the Starting XI. The only weak link in their side is the holding midfield position. The problem has persisted for a while since Michael Carrick lost his legs. United turned to Nemanja Matic and later Fred. The emergence of a young Scott Mctominay also helped the club in some ways, but not completely.

All three holding midfielders are reasonably solid defensively but lack Carrick’s vision in passing. The former English midfielder used to sit in front of the defence and controlled the tempo of the game. Most of the passes used to go through Carrick. Be it short, long, diagonal, there is not a pass he could not produce. However, the current crop of holding midfielders lack the same efficiency with the ball.

Manchester United failed to control the tempo

It was evident against the Saints on Sunday. United had 64% possession, yet they never controlled the midfield. Southampton were happy to let the visitors have the ball as they held a good shape in defence. Only when the ball was passed forward to players like Pogba or Bruno Fernandes did United look dangerous. As a result, all the home team had to do was cut the passing options from holding midfielders to attacking players, which they did admirably. Hence, United struggled to build from the back, producing only four shots on target. It was also not a surprise that some of their best chances on Sunday came from set pieces rather than open play.

At the moment, the club is heavily reliant on select few attacking players to work their magic. They no longer have the Michael Carrick or Paul Scholes type of players, who can sit near the halfway line and dominate the midfield. To Solskjaer’s credit, he has filled two of the three holes this summer in buying a right-winger (Jadon Sancho) and a centre-back (Raphael Varane). However, if the team is to compete for the title, they must dominate the midfield, which necessitates the acquisition of a quality deep lying playmaker. With the transfer window still open, it will be interesting to see whether the Red Devils will fix the major hole in the middle of the park.

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