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Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed the midfield is where the game is won and it looks like the centre of the pitch will be a key battle in Sunday’s clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Manchester United head to Molineux looking to put their disappointing 1-1 draw with Southampton behind them.
The lack of tempo in midfield at St Mary’s was a big concern for United fans, with Nemanja Matic and Fred offering very little going forward. United failed to get the ball into their forwards which meant the likes of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes had to drop deep to involve themselves in the play.
Wolves are a team that like to control the tempo and under new manager Bruno Lage they’ve become more attacking compared to how they played under Nuno Espirito Santo.
In their last three games, Wolves have had over 70 shots, emphasising the progressive tactics on display.
One player that has adapted appropriately to this is midfielder Ruben Neves.
The Portugal international has been linked with a move to Old Trafford over the past few months, with United fans quick to question what his best position actually is.
Neves has become a key part of Wolves’ starting XI During Nuno’s spell as manager, Neves was utilised as both a number six and a number eight.
However, since Lage’s arrival, Neves has excelled in the defensive midfield role and this gives us a better indication of how he would fit if he ever moved to Old Trafford.
A Defensive maestro who pushes forward?
Since Wolves have moved to a more offensive style of play it’s meant that an element of control has been needed from their midfield and Neves has offered just that.
During his last three matches, he’s had an average pass accuracy of 84% and most of said passes have been played from deep.
As we can see from this heat map, Neves has covered the majority of the middle area of the field, but he’s also looked to support the attack – if he did this at United it would leave their backline exposed.
Neves heat map, via SofaScore (Image: SofaScore) Neves has won just 50% of his ground duels in the last three games, meaning he’d be unlikely to offer United’s defence the sort of protection they need.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opt for a more defensive midfield partnership at Molineux in order to nullify Wolves’ attacking threat.
Solskjaer may even think about starting Matic to support the defence and be the man who transitions the ball from defence to attack. This was similar to his role in the 2019/20 season, where he doubled up with Pogba in a midfield pivot to add some stability to the team.
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It may even tempt Solskjaer into opting to start Raphael Varane at the weekend. The Frenchman covers a considerable amount of ground with his pace at the back and will push United’s defensive line higher.
If Neves continues to push forward throughout the season, United may feel they were wise to not opt for a move. However, only time will tell and they’ll need to watch out for him on Sunday.
How do United stop Neves? Follow our new United Fan Brands writer Omar Garrick on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.