The more things change the more they stay the same.
window after window Man Utd go in with the intention of finally fixing long-term troubled positions but then get distracted by the stylish, more exciting option. The same thing looks to be happening once again under Erik ten Hag, with the manager seemingly wanting to strengthen in every position other than the one that is needed the most: defensive-midfield.
United went into the summer with the intention of finally signing the dedicated holding midfielder that they have been missing for years, a need which was made even more pertinent following Nemanja Matic’s departure. Thought Fred and Scott McTominay both have positive traits, neither are disciplined or defensively astute enough to shield a defense which has been in dire need of protection.
An aging Matic was past his peak anyway, but his exit has left United without a player capable of doing the dirty work in the middle. Not signing a defensive midfielder in recent years has repeatedly proven costly and it looked as though that would at least be addressed this time around.
As it was accepted that a move for Declan Rice was a non-starter, Kalvin Phillips was identified as an early top target but Leeds United’s Premier League survival and Manchester City’s interest have all but scuppered that. Others were touted but went elsewhere. Aurelian Tchouameni joined Real Madrid, Vitinha is closing in on Paris Saint-Germain and since then it’s all gone quiet on the defensive-midfielder front.
In fact, Ten Hag doesn’t appear to be targeting one at all. MEN Sport reported on Monday that the new boss is targeting at least five signings, two in his efforts to rebuild the midfield, but no defensive-midfielders. As well as a reserve goalkeeper, versatile defender Jurrien Timber and exciting forward Antony, United are working on deals to sign both Frenkie de Jong and Christian Eriksen.
Now, at least it makes a great deal of sense why Ten Hag is pushing so hard for two creative, intelligent and elegant midfielders because United also don’t have any of those at present either. The Dutchman will be looking to implement a possession-based, attacking style of play at Old Trafford but that will be impossible without midfielders who can use the ball exceptionally well.
McTominay and Fred are energetic, box-to-box runners while Bruno Fernandes is a risk-taking difference-maker but none of them keep the ball well enough. The returning James Garner and Donny van de Beek may have the skills Ten Hag requires but it’s no guarantee that they will be able to make the step up.
So De Jong and Eriksen are both essential signings and both would completely revolutionize United’s midfield from a faltering, spluttering machine with little thought or ingenuity to a cultured, intricate and imaginative system. If the club somehow manages to pull both deals off then the chances of Ten Hag having early success will skyrocket.
Yet, the lack of a defensive-midfielder could be the anchor that continues to hold them down. De Jong can play there but it’s not his specialist position and would be a waste of his talents further up the pitch, while Eriksen certainly isn’t suited to play at the base of the midfield.
If one isn’t recruited, it will be another year of rotation between Fred and McTominay taking up the mantle. Perhaps Ten Hag would be able to coach them into playing the position correctly but all available evidence suggests it would be some task. Another hope is that Garner, who shone in a deep role (but in a double pivot) on loan at Nottingham Forest last season, will be good enough to make the jump up. But that’s a whole lot of hope.
The best way United can fix their midfield issues is to add the defensive power it needs as well as the ingenuity. It’s a summer rebuild after all, so why not go all the way?
Signing Eriksen and De Jong is certainly a thrilling prospect but if United once again fail to solve their biggest problem then it will show that no lessons have been learned at all.