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Friday, September 24, 2021

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Opinion: Manchester United still need a defensive midfielder but there’s no need to panic

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Manchester United were held to a 1-1 draw to Southampton at St Mary’s in game week two, in a performance that was vastly different to the opening win against Leeds United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were at times lethargic and sloppy with their passing, succumbing to a strong Southampton press more often than not.

The transfer window closes in less than a week at the time of writing this article and United fans are still clamouring for the signing of a defensive midfielder, a key area in the squad that has still not been addressed. While the arrival of attacking talent in the form of Jadon Sancho is exciting, I think it’s a bit redundant if the midfield is not sorted out. 

This article will briefly look at the reasons why we need a defensive midfielder, the potential targets and their pricing, but the main focus will be on the need to remain calm in the market. 

In the aforementioned game against Southampton, United started with a pivot of Nemanja Matic and Fred, a combination usually seen sparingly in United’s line-up, with Solskjaer often opting for preferred pairing Scott McTominay and Fred. Despite an early flurry of chances, United struggled, with the midfield unable to retain possession and deal with Southampton’s press throughout the game. 

Both Fred and Matic were guilty of giving the ball away frequently, and an unusual off day from United’s captain unsettled United even more. If anything, United’s first away trip of the season cemented the need for a new central defensive midfielder, as it’s clear the balance isn’t right in midfield now. 

The acquisition of a top quality central defensive midfielder would allow United to be more expansive and better in transition, and United should look to seek a mobile player capable of passing out well under pressure to avoid being sloppy in games like this. A younger Matic would probably be enough to solve the midfield issue for United, but it’s obvious the ageing Serbian, now 33, can’t cut it week in week out in the Premier League anymore. 

United’s interest in a midfield signing stems back to long before the start of this summer transfer window, but with time running out, it looks more and more unlikely that they will be able to bring anyone in before the deadline of the 31 August. It’s also been frequently reported that United are relying on outgoings before getting anyone else in, something that has proved troublesome for the club in the past and seemingly still is. 

Finding buyers for the likes of out of form/favour players such as Diogo Dalot and Phil Jones would potentially free up funds for United to invest in a midfielder, but it looks as if Dalot will stay this season while Jones hasn’t attracted any serious buyers. This means reported targets Eduardo Camavinga and Ruben Neves of Wolverhampton Wanderers would likely be unattainable, as both will demand fees upwards of £30 million, something deemed too expensive without any funds coming in. 

One other option for United is 26-year-old Saul Niguez, someone United have been linked with in the past, and it seems Atletico Madrid are willing to let him go. Although Saul has been linked with Chelsea as well, United need a midfielder much more so the option of higher game time might appeal to the player. 

This deal may also be more doable than the other two as Atletico are open to loan proposals, meaning United would only have to cover wage fees. Another positive would be that this deal could then be risk free if Saul doesn’t fit the bill United would be able to let him go next season. 

This would be the perfect way for United to work around the fact that they are unable to obtain long-term target Declan Rice, who Solskjaer reportedly views as the perfect midfielder for United. Rice would cost more than £80 million this summer, ruling out any possible deal this window, but there’s a strong chance United will go back in for him next year. 

While I think United should look to sign a midfielder this summer, I think they should proceed cautiously, ensuring it is someone Solskjaer’s genuinely wants. Word of United’s chase for a midfielder is very common knowledge amongst the football world and the club should be careful to not fall into the trap of overpaying out of necessity. 

In recent years United have rushed into some strange deals, with no real clear transfer policy. United did a swap deal with Arsenal for Alexis Sanchez back in 2018, letting Henrikh Mkhitaryan go the other away, this deal is now widely regarded as one of the worst football transfers in history as both players failed to produce at their new clubs. 

Additionally, big name signings of players such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao have failed to work out in the long run for United, and had a sense of an impromptu nature about them. This is a major reason why I feel like signing a player out of desperation may in fact be negative for the club, if it doesn’t work out United are stuck with another name on the already large wage bill. 

During Solskjaer’s reign the club has carefully fine-tuned a more specific transfer policy, working efficiently and effectively to recruit players who are more suited to Solskjaer’s preferred playing style and United as a whole, rushing into a midfielder signing that Solskjaer may not actually want abandons that.

Overall, I think United will struggle without a midfield signing this season, if not purely for the reason of cover for injuries, but the problem in United’s midfield is not really depth-it’s the need for a proper defensive midfielder. Social media was inundated with criticism for United as a club at the weekend, both from rival and United fans, lamenting the need for a midfielder.

However, much of this criticism is reactionary and fails to consider several factors. Solskjaer still needs to work new recruits Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane into the team, while also building up the fitness of the squad. The Southampton game was also likely a litmus test for French forward Anthony Martial, who looks nothing like the forward he once was. 

Solskjaer will now have a better idea where much of the squad is at, and the inclusion of Martial may well have been more of a reason United dropped points than just the poor showing in midfield. 

Despite this, several ‘fans’ on social media will use this result to fuel the agenda against United’s existing midfielders, while not considering the whole picture. This reactionary criticism may apply even more pressure on the club to sign someone frantically, but as I’ve stated before, that may not be for the best if it’s not the right profile. 

Even without the signing of a midfielder, I believe United can win the league, but it’s important for both the fans and the club to not panic. Only 36 Premier League matches to go…

Written by Sam Wilson

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