England Opinion

The Stats Don’t Lie – Manchester United’s Holding Midfielder Problem

With Ander Herrera’s alleged move to PSG being seemingly the worst-kept secret in football, Ed Woodward and Manchester United face one of the most crucial summers in their recent history. Various new players are needed with the United squad riddled with holes in crucial positions such as right back, centre back, holding midfield and right wing. However, United’s most acute need is that of a holding midfielder. United are in dire need of a holding midfielder, primarily because their current options for the role  – Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera aren’t good enough.

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Manchester United have several options for holding midfielder like Scott McTominay but none are quite right (Image from Tumblr)

Matic is the current first-choice for the role. Unfortunately, he simply isn’t good enough for a top quality team anymore. At the age of 30, he doesn’t have the mobility required to do the incredibly physically demanding role of a holding midfielder. Matic cannot screen an already vulnerable United backline – attacking players are able to simply breeze past him. This is evident in his drop in defensive activity from his Chelsea years. In 2014-15, during Chelsea’s title winning season, Matic averaged 3.58 tackles and 2 interceptions per game. These numbers have dropped to 1.92 and 1.21 respectively. Even last year, he averaged 1.94 tackles per game and 1.78 interceptions per game. Never blessed with tremendous mobility, the slight drop-off has made a whole lot of difference for Matic. While he is a decent passer, he doesn’t offer enough playmaking and/or ball-carrying ability to justify his place in the team on that basis.

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Declining – Matic stats show an alarming trend downwards in form (Image from Tumblr)

Moving on to McTominay, the young Scot is too limited in his overall abilities as a player. He offers neither enough defensive activity (0.74 tackles and 0.89 interceptions per game), nor adequate ability on the ball to make him fit for a team in the top half, let alone Manchester United. Although McTominay may still improve and become a good squad player for United, he isn’t going to be the answer to United’s woes right now. As for Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, even if the former stays at United due to a last minute change of heart from either Herrera himself or the United hierarchy, he isn’t a defensive midfielder by trade. Herrera is best as a traditional central midfielder (or an 8), in a role where he’s allowed to do a little bit of everything. Similarly, Pogba is also best utilized in a much more advanced role where he’s given the license to be creative and get himself into the box.

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Herrera and Pogba – Great players but not holding midfielders by trade (Image from Tumblr)

Thus, United lack any good options for the holding midfielder role. Considering how important the role is in modern football where fullbacks are instructed to bomb forward, this is an essential requirement for United to be competitive in the title race next season. At the top of United’s wish-list should be Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves. Neves might not be the best defensively, but he is almost certainly better than United’s current options. He averages 2.25 tackles and 2.32 interceptions per game. More importantly, what makes Neves such an attractive option is his passing ability from the base of midfield. Neves has the ability to effectively break the lines and feed accurate balls to his forwards and wingers. Matic is able to do this to some level, but he’s not as proficient as Neves. Furthermore, Neves is only 22, has Premier League experience and is very mature for his age (he captained Porto in the Champions League when he was only 18 years old).

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Hard to believe Neves is only 22 given how he controls a lot of the games he is in. United would face competition for his signature (image from Tumblr)

A cheaper alternative for United is Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi. He is tremendously active defensively, averaging 3.87 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per game. He is physically strong and mobile, and shields the backline very well. His only issue is his lack of ability on the ball. Ndidi is a fairly safe passer who prefers to simply recycle possession with backwards and sideways passes. His lack of technical ability will be amplified if playing for United, when every midfielder needs to be a good and ambitious passer. However, despite this, Ndidi will provide United with a good defensive midfielder and would be an astute purchase.

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Having impressed at Leicester,Wilfred Ndidi’s stock has risen considerably making him a potential target for bigger teams (image from Tumblr)

Finally a player United have been linked with recently is West Ham midfielder, Declan Rice. Unfortunately he too is very far from the required quality that United need. He is a poor passer whose technical limitations will be too much for him to overcome in a midfield role. He might transition into becoming a good centre back but United don’t really require another young, talented centre back, especially with Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu Mensah coming back from their respective loan stints.

Post by Prithvi Pahwa, Analyst + Contributor