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With the opening-day fixture against Leeds United fast approaching, Manchester United are yet to sign a midfielder in the summer window, meaning that if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to employ a 4-3-3 system, he will have to rely on options already at the club.
So, the questions we must ask are first, are the options good enough to make an impact in the first few fixtures of the season? And secondly, if no midfielder is eventually signed, are they good enough for United to challenge for silverware this season?
Of what is a limited list of options, with Donny Van De Beek, Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba being more suited to duties going forward, only one is what would be typically referred to as a natural defensive midfielder in Nemanja Matic.
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In a recent interview, Matic spoke about his desire to win a trophy this season.
“This season we have to challenge for every trophy and finally to win something because we need that one trophy,” he said.
“After that, we hope it will be easier, the team needs to feel that [winning] energy and I’m happy how everything has been going.”
His desire to win has never been in question, being brought in by Jose Mourinho in his first season to shore up his midfield and was rewarded with the Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League in his first season.
However, it is not Matic’s mentality or his ability when fit that is the issue; it is that he is an ageing player in a young man’s role.
At 33 years old Matic is slowing down. He is still the classy passer who can read the game extremely well, but last season he only managed 12 starts for Manchester United, the lowest return of his career since his debut season.
The role of a defensive midfielder in recent years has seen a move towards highly energetic, tackle and press-heavy players who can play 38 games a season. In these sorts of matchups, he may struggle to match the tempo they set.
This means the door is open for someone to support or replace Matic. MEN Sport understands that Manchester United are still interested in adding another midfielder before the window closes but it will rely on outgoings. If this doesn’t happen, the person to step into that role might be Fred.
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – AUGUST 07: Nathan Broadhead of Everton and Fred of Manchester United at Old Trafford on August 7, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Offside via Getty Images) Fred has gone through his up and downs in the eyes of United fans. In his two-man partnership with Scott McTominay, they have dominated the midfield in big wins for the club, such as last season’s 6-2 win over Leeds United and the 2-0 win over Manchester City.
The dependency on two defensive midfielders however has led to United struggling in games against teams that sit back, so the tactical change to a lone defensive midfielder is preferable to allow the team to have another creative outlet in midfield.
It will be interesting to see if Fred can function in this role, as it seems Solskjaer is likely to deploy him there based on his substitute appearance against Everton in pre-season.
His high energy and pressing ability matches the style that most defensive No.6 players adopt in the Premier League, however, his passing ability and ability to keep hold of the ball have come under fire in the past and the ability to recycle the ball back into the attack after winning it is important for the role.
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Overall, Fred has what it takes to thrive in this role. Pep Guardiola tried to sign him at Manchester City as the long-term successor to Fernandinho before he moved to the other side of Manchester and Pep had to bring in Rodri for the role instead.
He can win the ball back effectively and with one of Pogba or Fernandes dropping back into a three-man midfield to collect the ball, there is less likelihood of him turning over possession. However, he will still need to cut the mistakes out of his game that have plagued him in the past.
Obviously to most fans, adding another more natural defensive midfielder to the ranks is preferable, but if not, Matic and Fred may have a big year on their hands for what is a make-or-break season for Solskjaer, and hopefully, they can all end it with silverware in hand.
Do you think United can win silverware with their current squad? Follow our new United Fan Brands Writer Casey Evans on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comment section below.