Woeful. Abject. Void. Disjointed. These are just a few select words that could be used to describe Manchester United’s midfield. Or season, you can choose. Despite somehow finishing 2nd in the Premier League and narrowing losing the FA Cup final, this season for Manchester United has been an utter whirl wind and one that is one that will not be fondly remembered, especially if Liverpool have anything to do with compiling the misery as Manchester City already have done. Much has been made as to the reasoning behind their weird old season and ultimate shorting comings in both the Premier League and Champions League, both challenges as whimpering as each other and the problem boils down to one contributing factor; their midfield. Or lack of it more appropriately.
Ever since Roy Keane left the club in 2005, Manchester United’s midfield has never been more than above average in terms overall quality in the 13 years he has been gone, which is insane considering the size of the club and what it has achieved in that time, despite the midfield deficiencies. The midfield problem was never eradicated during Fergie’s latter time of his tenure, with him often shoehorning players like John O’Shea or Fabio in or most notably, having to beg a 37-year-old Paul Scholes to come out of retirement. A decision which inadvertently cost Manchester United £89m. I’ll leave you to work that one out.
It hasn’t gotten much better since Sir Alex Ferguson left, signing six midfielders for a combined total of £225.5m. Two of these players were sold 18 months after being bought while a certain afro-headed individual is about to leave the club on a free attempting to hold the club to ransom.
With Manchester United’s second best midfield gone in Michael Carrick due to retirement, Marouane Fellaini seemingly leaving on a free, Nermanja Matic needing an oxygen mask after 20 minutes, Ander Herrera running like a rabid dog unless being told to man mark Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba still not hitting the heights expected, Manchester United’s midfield needs a new face to liven it up and breath new life in it. Here are three midfielders who for different reasons, I believe can help Manchester United’s midfield miseries.
Position(s) – CM/AM
Key stat: 14 goals and 6 assists in 47 games
I’ll start with the most hotly rumoured midfielder linked with Manchester United, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. This has been a breakout season for the Serbian, who’s double-digit goal tally from midfield helped Lazio finish 5th in Serie A, losing missing out on a CL spot on the final day of the season. Aged just 23, the midfield man began his career in his native country of Serbia with Vojvodina, rising through the academy ranks before making his professional debut in late 2013. His maiden season saw him yield 13 appearances in the league and showing his goal scoring prowess right from the beginning, scoring three goals. He also won the Serbian Cup before it was announced he was moving to Genk in June 2014. In his sole season in Belgium he endured a fairly decent time, scoring five league goals in 24 games. For the second time in as many years, SMS packed his bags and headed off to Rome to join Lazio where his prominence as a goal getter really shone through, getting 3 goals, 7 goals and 14 goals in his three seasons at the club.
Lazio have predominately played a 3-5-1-1 system in which Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has been part of a three-man midfield, situated on the left hand side, with Marco Parolo on the right with former Liverpool man Lucas Leiva anchoring the centre. The Serbian has also been played in the attacking midfield role, although is best played in central midfield. Having the protection from the Brazilian allows him to venture forward from his midfield base and link up with left-wing back Sanad Lulic and centre forward Luis Alberto. This also allows him to arrive in and around the box for a strike onto goal, which is he has duly done this season, scoring 14 goals in the term just gone and this free role also allows him to find pockets of space to drift into and receive the ball. In addition to his 14 goals he has also provided 6 assists for team mates, something which isn’t as widely spoke about, as his play making ability can be overshadowed by his impressive goal scoring numbers.
Milinkovic-Savic is also built like your typical Jose Mourinho player, standing at a height of 6’3, which no doubt will appeal to him massively. Sergej could be the key to helping Manchester United have a more robust midfield compared to the often static one we see currently. In terms of what he would bring to Manchester United’s midfield, he’d bring goals, stature and the ability to break lines against stubborn defences.
Despite all these qualities however, I don’t personally believe he or Manchester United would hugely benefit from his arrival. They also have an older and more refined version of him in Paul Pogba, an all action goal getting midfielder reduced to a defensive midfielder rarely being able to go past the centre circle without getting an earful from coaching staff. He would be wasted by Jose Mourinho and not used to his full goal getting potential. I also feel that it is still a bit early for Sergej to move from Lazio, as this has been his only real season of note and may buckle under the pressure of a big money move. The Serbian has often been carried in midfield by Lucas Leiva and is still unable to control a match for 90 minutes on a consistent basis, albiet with his impressive goal return. Talking of big money moves, acquiring the Serbian would be a hefty wad of cash to part with, with figures such as €91m being talked about. For my money at least, it’s the right club, but the wrong time.
Club: AS Monaco
Position(s) – DM/RB
Key stat: 132 successful tackles from 200 attempts and 51 interceptions in 39 appearances
A ghost from summer’s past. Fabinho was heavily linked with Manchester United last summer after his Ligue 1 winning exploits last season and was actually one of the survivors of that squad who didn’t get sold to Europe’s elite, although is linked to do so this summer after another impressive season for Jardim’s team. The 24-year-old Brazilian started his career in his native country but surprisingly, did not play a single game of professional football in Brazil. This was because at his first club Fluminense he was let go without making a single appearance and at his next club Rio Ave, he was loaned out for multiple years before being sold. In 2013 he joined Real Madrid Castilla on a season long loan before making his debut for the first team, which was handed by Jose Mourinho who was manager at the time and provided an assist on his only appearance for the club. Fabinho then embarked onto France, joining newly promoted Ligue 1 side AS Monaco on an initial one year loan which became two, before signing permanently in 2015. Fabinho became the lynchpin of last season’s Monaco team which won Ligue 1 and got to the Champions League semi finals, after being converted from a right back to a defensive midfielder to tremendous effect. He stared against Manchester City in the Champions League alongside Bakayoko in Jardim’s 4-4-2 system, providing multiple assists and scoring over the two legs. He has carried on his good work this season despite losing his midfield partner in Bakayoko amongst other numerous team mates, working well with Joao Moutinho in a 4-2-3-1.
As previously stated, Fabinho has operated in a 4-2-3-1 system this season, playing in a pivot with Moutinho which allowed him to provide cover for the back line and enables the former Porto man in midfield to venture forward. This is a change to what he was last season as he was partnered in a 4-4-2 with Tiemoue Bakayoko in which his role was to allow the Frenchman be the bombarding box to box midfielder he is, and letting himself be more of a deep-lying playmaker due to his passing ability but also act as destroyer. His defensive awareness and ability is attributed to him being a right back originally but this makes him a very unique proposition, and has the agility and attacking capabilities of a full back, but has developed a great sense of defensive awareness needed as a defensive midfielder with his timing, anticipation and ability to use the midfield space around him effectively all improved greatly. Another aspect of the Brazilian’s game which is criminally underrated is his passing and set piece taking. Although only chalking up 3 assists for the season, he is responsible for collecting the ball from initiating attacks, often from his pinpoint long-range passes to push the team up the thirds. He often plays an out ball to the right side to Keita Balde or Thomas Lamar, or even down to former Manchester United man Radamel Falcao. He is also often trusted from 12 yards, scoring 6 times from the spot.
Fabinho like Savic, is also fits the Mourinho midfield mould, standing at 6’2 but does posses a more slender figure compared to the likes of Pogba and Matic yet still can be a striking and formidable presence in the centre of the park. In terms of what he can can to Manchester United’s midfield, it is different to Milinkovic-Savic as Fabinho is a more defensive minded player, using his stature to shield and protect, rather than attack and power forward. His stamina is something to be admired as well, with Matic approaching 30, Fabinho could provide the perfect antidote.
Overall all things considered, I think Fabinho would be a decent fit for Manchester United as he brings another dynamic into the midfield, with his defensive prowess and ability to protect the back line would be hugely beneficial to Jose Mourinho’s side. The rumoured cost around him is somewhere between £30-40m which I think is a fair price considering that Atletico Madrid are reportedly sniffing around the midfielder too. Jose should really consider getting Fabinho as an option as he could provide legs in midfield which aren’t there in Nermanja Matic and allow Pogba to free roam from position as well as give the out balls to initiate attacks from the back.
Position(s) – CM/DM
Key stat: Made 91 passes on average per game with an 89% success rate
The third and final midfielder I believe that can reignite Manchester United’s mediocre midfield is Napoli and Italy midfielder Jorginho. The Brazilian born man has been an extremely vital component to Sarri’s swashbuckling Napoli side and his metronomic style of play is a major reason to why he is so sought after. Jorginho’s life actually began in Brazil, but moved to Europe at a young age, growing up in Italy. He was part of the Hellas Verona youth set up and came through the ranks before getting loaned out in 2010 to lower league side Sambonifacese on a season long loan, in which he impressing notching a goal and 10 assists in 31 games for the team. He returned to his parent club and made his debut for them in 2011. He made steady progress for Verona before Napoli came in for the midfielder in January of 2014, where we won the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana within the first year in Naples. He perfected his defensive craft under Rafa Benitez before he left and Maurizio Sarri was placed in helm, which was the start of his ultimate evolution as a player. Sarri implemented a passing possession based game in which Jorginho was the set in the base of a 3 man midfield. This allowed him to utilize his talents as a regista and become a passing metronome, recycling possession to great aplomb and be a calm presence in the team. He’s perfected this role over the past few years as Napoli have quickly risen to Juventus’ closest challengers, but sadly to no avail for Jorginho and Napoli.
Jorginho has been played in a three-man midfield in a 4-3-3 system under Sarri, often flanked by Allan, Hamsik or Zielinski to complete the trio. Jorginho acts as a single pivot as his flanking midfielders take more attacking responsibilities, which allows him to sit and screen the back line, as both full backs likes to push on high up the pitch. When Napoli are very dominant in a match he pushes forward, remaining at the base and being where passing moves are carried out through. The Italian international can also act as an auxiliary centre back, helping to soak up pressure before pushing the team forward with his quick incisive passing. Being of a regista mould, Jorginho’s main key strengths are his calmness and of course, his passing. He makes a lot of passes as you would likely expect, but the quality of his passes is what is most impressive, providing 53 key passes and 4 assists in 36 games. Another quality he possess is his seemingly amazing resistance to the press. Always calm and composed, the Napoli man looks almost allergic to the pressure of his opponents, rarely being pressed off the ball and always able to evade and pass his way out of potential trouble.
Jorginho stands at a respectable 5’11, although is the shortest midfielder on this list. Despite his relative lack of size compared to other defensive midfielders, his ability to utilize his knowledge of pitch awareness and positioning means he isn’t often found in comprising positions in which his height is a major disadvantage. In terms of what he can bring to Manchester United, he can prove to be a like for like replacement for Michael Carrick, a true last regista of his type and there is not one similar in the United ranks. He could help provide metronomic passing to help the team through the thirds, something Manchester United have extremely struggled with this season, especially when Paul Pogba has not been in the team.
Taking everything into account, including the fact the rumoured cost for the man is £45m-£55m and that he is also linked with the blue side of Manchester, I think it’s a very logical move for Manchester United to make as it replaces the outgoing Michael Carrick in play style and a player like him comes at a premium availability. The fact that Carrick would also be in the coaching staff would hugely benefit the Italian international’s further development in the role. It would also allow Jose Mourinho’s team to have a more fluid structure in their midfield, having Jorginho at the base of midfield, Herrera shuttling and Pogba pushing forward. If Jose Mourinho could rid himself of his tall men fetish, then Jorginho could be a plausible possibility. Another worry is that whether if he could buck the trend of Brazilian and Italian players traditionally not doing well at Manchester United, so having a Brazilian born Italian player could be havoc. Or maybe two negatives really do make a positive.
I personally think that all three midfielders could come into the club this summer and all add something different to the midfield. Milinkovic-Savic would add a secondary driving force from midfield, Fabinho would provide legs and a solid defensive unit whereas Jorginho would provide a passing metronomic hub which could help the team in an attacking sense as well as in the middle of the park,