Manchester United's Squad Review: Who stays or goes in midfield?
In the last two summer transfer windows, Jose Mourinho looked to strengthen Manchester United’s midfield. He brought in Paul Pogba, then Nemanja Matic. While United’s midfield has improved, there remain inconsistencies. Add to that Michael Carrick’s retirement and Marouane Fellaini's exit, and there is work still to do.
Mourinho mostly played with two midfielders in the season's first half. He shifted to a 4-3-3 formation in the new year.
United began well. Matic and Pogba combined to produce an inspiring first eight matches. The squad's form when downhill following Pogba’s injury. His suspension further added to the problem.
Mourinho brought in academy graduate Scott McTominay. Ander Herrera, last year’s Player of the Year for United, found himself relegated to the bench.
The Basque finally worked his way into the side in spring. All in all, United's midfield is an uncertain mixed bag. Previous instalments have looked at the Red Devils' situation in goal and needs in defence. Now it's the midfielders' turn under the microscope.
If you look at how Mourinho set up his Chelsea teams, you’ll notice that he had two exceptional midfielders with different calling cards. One was of the holding discipline, the other box-to-box. The holding midfielder disrupted the opposition attack. The box-to-box midfielder created opportunities, scored goals and pitched in with the defense. Michael Essien was the former, Frank Lampard the latter.
You'd have to think Mourinho signed Pogba to be his United version of Lamps. He has all the attributes and more to act as a playmaker, score goals and defend. His performances in the first eight matches will tell you he did all the above. But problems remain with his mentality and consistency.
Even so, he ranks among the Premier League's most successful midfielders. He registered a better goal + assists/minute ratio than Kevin DeBruyne. But he lacked the intensity Mourinho values. The Portuguese might not be done with him yet, but next season will surely be the final straw if he does not redeem himself.
Undoubtedly, the most consistent midfield performer this season, Matic has done his job and then some. He was bought to provide cover to the defence and allow Pogba to roam freely in the final third. After playing almost all the league matches, he did seem tired towards the end of the season. His two worst performances came against West Brom and Bournemouth, both of which United lost.
However, his ability to control and temper the game, while providing stability cannot be doubted. The curling volley against Crystal Palace was a goal of the year candidate. The Serbian will remain with United next season and should be as important as he has been this season. The question is whether Mourinho will trust Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay enough to give him more rest?
The Belgium international spent most of the season injured, appearing in only 22 games. Despite only seven starts this season, the former Evertonian finished the season with seven goals to his name. A few of them came at crucial junctures for United.
However, if media reports are to be believed, he has not renewed his contract with the Red Devils and seems likely to be heading out. While a section of the fans will celebrate his exit, the fact remains that he was a vital, albeit boring and predictable cog that Mourinho employed when facing dead-ends. Replacing him will not be easy.
Herrera’s form dipped slightly at the start of the season, but he began to improve as opportunities became available. He made 38 appearances this season and remains one of the most dynamic players in the squad. Mourinho utilised him as a box-to-box terrier who is a bit more defensive minded than Pogba, in the way that a pit bull is a bit larger than a chihuahua, but he did pitch in with two goals and an assist as well.
Herrera’s future still remains on the line. His contract expires next year. His late return to the lineup, ability to man-mark the opposition's most dangerous player, as he has Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Mo Salah, and his unquenchable passion for the club all suggest he will be at Old Trafford a while longer.
It was an excellent season for the 6' 4", 21-year-old Lancastrian. He was given the opportunity to work with a stellar cast of players, feature in games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool and make his international debut with his chosen country, Scotland. As well, Mourinho was so enamoured with him, he created a special Manager's Player of the Year award on the spot when the youngster was frozen out of the club's season-end awards.
McTominay provided a calming element in United’s midfield. He exhibits composure where Herrera spits fire and displays industry where Pogba shows indifference. Mourinho’s stress on the ‘simple pass’ enabled him to control the game in possession. While he has been successful in what his manager asked him to do, the upcoming season is likely to feature new midfield recruits. It will be interesting to note whether he gets the same opportunities next season or finds himself on loan to garner playing time?
With 27 appearances for Valencia this season, Pereira was United’s only first-team midfielder who was sent out on loan. Pereira forced his move towards the end of the summer window, which opened the door for McTominay to be promoted.
However, Mourinho has already mentioned that at Valencia, the Brazilian played in a position which does not exist for United. During United's pre-season friendlies, he was used as a central midfielder. Following his move to the Mestalla, he featured mostly on the wings. Stranger yet, his performance has not been good enough to demand a first-team slot from Mourinho. In such circumstances, it seems likely that he will have to move on to better opportunities this season. Valencia could become the 22-year-old's permanent club.
Rumours have abounded surrounding two young midfielders.
Pundits have been chirping about United already being in talks to secure Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio. The noise dialled up several notches when the Eagles failed to land in a Champions League place at season's end. The 6' 4' winger has all the tools fill in the gap on the right flank at Old Trafford. He also has the height to replace Marouane Fellaini as United's primary aerial presence.
The back pages are also playing up the second duel between City and United, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, over a transfer target. Mourinho secured Alexis Sanchez in January. Now the furore is over Shakhtar Donetsk's brilliant box-to-box midfielder and set-piece wizard, Fred. Thoughts are the 25-year-old Brazilian will provide the vision that would otherwise be missed following Michael Carrick's retirement.