Following on from Manchester United’s Champions League second round defeat to Sevilla, the criticism of manager José Mourinho has grown louder. One of the grumbles heard most consistently throughout this season relates to his inability to structure the midfield so as to get the best out of Paul Pogba, an issue that played a part in the team’s early European exit.
Pogba is undoubtedly the most creative midfielder at Old Trafford. Indeed, he’s one of the most creative in the entirety of the Premier League. Within Mourinho’s squad, only Juan Mata creates more chances and only Alexis Sánchez completes more dribbles on average. Meanwhile, Manchester City duo Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané are the only players in England’s top flight with more than the French playmaker’s nine assists.
It isn’t totally clear whether Pogba was unfit going into the Sevilla clash, though Mourinho seemed to think Marouane Fellaini was the tactically preferable pick, saying: “We have different options and we believe…Fellaini's qualities make us stronger to start the game with.” However, this call left the team without their most offensively influential midfielder.
This season the Manchester United boss has been reluctant to play a midfield three – something most agree suits Pogba best. And this is largely down to a lack of quality options: Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay are all limited in terms of what they offer on the ball.
In order to maximise the talent of their finest creator, United need to play a three-man midfield. And, in order to play a three-man midfield, they need to sign a quality box-to-box midfielder. Here are six potential solutions they should target in the summer.
Allan first rose to prominence during an exceptional 2014/15 season with Udinese that included a superb defensive display against Pogba. Effectively silencing the former Juventus man, he earned a reputation as one of the most dogged, resolute ball-winning midfielders in Italy. His status was secured by the fact that he ultimately averaged more tackles per game (4.6) than any other Serie A player. For context his nearest rival in the category, Lucas Biglia, averaged 3.7.
On the back of that campaign the Brazilian earned a move to Napoli, where he has since stood out as a provider of solidity and energy in a team built on finesse. Despite playing for one of the most productive possession teams on the continent, he remains in Serie A’s top 10 for tackles per game this term. Should Manchester United want someone who can break up opposition attacks, he’s their man.
But Allan can do so much more. He’s also a good dribbler capable of breaking the lines with forward bursts, and is extremely difficult to dispossess due to his sheer physical strength and warrior mentality. If the Premier League giants need another reason to pursue the 27-year-old, they should consider that he revels on the right of a central three. This positional preference would enable Pogba to assume his favoured left-sided role were the two to play together.
Like Allan, Kerem Demirbay prefers to operate on the right-hand side of central midfield. However, the pair are completely different types of midfielder. Whereas the former is a prodigious ball-winner, the latter is more a cultured playmaker. He would add to Manchester United’s possession play were he to join, but could he ensure balance within a central three?
Looking primarily at the statistics, the answer to that question appears to be yes. Nemanja Matić is Mourinho’s first-choice defensive midfielder, but Demirbay has averaged more tackles per game than the Serbian this term. Clearly, he is proficient enough in this area to act as a sound halfway house in a central trident.
The only difficulty may be convincing him to leave Hoffenheim. Discussing recent speculation linking him with a summer move to Arsenal, he told German outlet Kicker: “I never said that I wanted to change [clubs]. I feel comfortable here and will be playing for Hoffenheim in the coming season.”
Shakhtar Donetsk impressed many a neutral onlooker during their run to the Champions League last 16 this season, with Fred playing a vital role in their progress.
The Brazilian was key to group stage wins over Manchester City and Napoli, as well as the second round home leg win over Roma, in which he scored the winner with a fine free-kick.
That goal showcased the 25-year-old’s technical ability, and like others on this list he is an astute operator on the ball.
During build-up he likes to drop deep centrally and pick up from the centre-backs, while he is also a brave and accurate passer capable of breaking multiple lines with one through ball.
An authoritative attacking player and a conscientious defender, Fred would improve Mourinho’s side in and out of possession.
And, with rivals Manchester City reportedly dropping out of the race for his signature, United could swoop in to sign him this summer.
If Manchester United want to be audacious in their search for a dynamic box-to-box midfielder, they might look towards Emre Can, who is out of contract this summer. However, a slightly less controversial – and more realistic – target may be the player Liverpool are reportedly seeking to succeed Can.
Mario Lemina has enjoyed a wonderful debut Premier League campaign with Southampton, leading to rumours that he could soon move to Anfield. His contribution of 2.2 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per game is impressive, while his ability to breeze past opposition midfielders – only 13 players have averaged more completed dribbles – has drawn comparisons to Tottenham Hotspur’s Mousa Dembélé.
At 24 years of age, the Gabonese has both top-level experience and real upside. He also provides a nice combination of defensive stability and attacking intent. Of all the domestic-based options who could add quality to Manchester United’s midfield, he is perhaps the best all-rounder.
In his formative years, Max Meyer was seen as the next great German attacking midfielder. Initially expected to one day compete with the likes of Mesut Özil, Julian Draxler and Marco Reus for a place in Joachim Löw’s national team, he struggled to live up to the hype. However, since being re-deployed in a slightly deeper role by Domenico Tedesco, he has been rejuvenated.
Within Schalke’s rough 3-5-2 shape the 22-year-old has taken on the role of deep-lying midfield orchestrator, receiving the ball from defence and progressing possession. He also provides good defensive coverage – only eight players in the Bundesliga have averaged more than his 2.6 interceptions per game this season.
Considering his youth, slight frame and relative inexperience in a more withdrawn role, Meyer isn’t an obvious candidate to flesh out Manchester United’s midfield. He certainly doesn’t fit the typical profile of a Mourinho midfielder. However, given he will be out of contract this summer and thus available on a free transfer, he is worth serious consideration.
One of the major difficulties for Leicester City in their failed bid to retain the Premier League title in 2017 was replacing N'Golo Kanté, who had left for Chelsea in the previous summer window. The industrious Frenchman was the key component in Claudio Ranieri’s side, but they found his successor within six months.
In January 2017, Wilfred Ndidi signed for the club for a fee of around £17million. And, in his first full season, he has forced his way into the conversation regarding the finest central midfielders in the league. No player has made more tackles per game than his 4.2 – the closest players to him in this statistical category are Kanté (of course) and Everton’s Kanté-esque Idrissa Gueye.
However, to focus solely on the Nigerian’s defensive attributes would be reductive. He’s also a consistent passer and has the capacity to take on and beat opponents in one-on-one situations when appropriate. The 21-year-old has been linked to Manchester United before and the club would be wise to make their purported interest concrete in the summer window.