Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t the first Manchester United manager to face something of a midfield conundrum. In fact, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho all faced questions over the personnel and structure of their central unit. Doubts over United’s midfield can even be traced back to the latter days of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, when the likes of Rafael da Silva and John O’Shea played there on occasion.
The difference is this time Solskjaer has a number of quality players in this area of the pitch. In Bruno Fernandes, United boast one of the best midfield creators in the Premier League. The impact the Portuguese international has made since arriving at Old Trafford 12 months ago has been profound.
Fernandes can be certain of his place in Solskjaer’s lineup, but the same can’t be said of Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek. Both players are considered top tier, maybe even world class in the case of the former, but neither are considered among the first names on Solskjaer’s team sheet.
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Uncertainty over Pogba’s future at Old Trafford is nothing new, but recent suggestions van de Beek could leave the club just six months after his signing hint at greater issues. Solskjaer could do with a new centre back and a right winger, but it’s one of the strongest areas of his team, at least in terms of personnel, that presents the biggest puzzle.
When Pogba leaves, as is widely expected to happen this summer, United should follow a precedent set by rivals Liverpool following the sale of Philippe Coutinho. At the time, Coutinho was considered one of Liverpool’s best players, but Jurgen Klopp and the decision-makers at Anfield viewed the sale of the Brazilian as an opportunity to restructure their midfield.
Marcus Rashford (links) im Zweikampft mit Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City)
Image credit: Getty Images
Some of the £142 million fee collected for Coutinho was used to sign Fabinho from Monaco. As a midfield anchor, Fabinho didn’t have the sparkle of his compatriot, but he was a much better fit for the team Klopp wanted to build. Indeed, Fabinho has since gone on to become one of Liverpool’s most important players.
Solskjaer needs a similar sort of figure at the base of his midfield to rebalance his team. Fred and Scott McTominay have been used as a protective duo for much of the season, but this is a role that needs to be performed by one exceptional player rather than shared between two. This would free up Solskjaer to potentially play Fernandes and van de Beek together.
Wilfred Ndidi could be Manchester United’s Fabinho. Leicester City would likely demand a hefty fee for the 24-year-old, but the impact he would make on Solskjaer’s side could be significant. And with Pogba gone it’s likely United would have some money to spend anyway. Ndidi is a good presser of possession, adept at carrying the ball forward and knows when and where to make a tackle.
With Ndidi at the base of his midfield, Solskjaer could focus on building out his attack. Some balance on the right wing would make United an even more dangerous proposition going forward and Ndidi would give a new wide man out there (potentially Jadon Sancho) a real platform to play from.
Jack Grealish and Sporting CP’s Pedro Goncalves have recently been linked with the Old Trafford outfit, but both are attack-minded midfielders. The exit of Pogba or van de Beek, or both, would free up an attacking spot in Solskjaer’s squad, but when it comes to sorting out his midfield the Norwegian must look for something he doesn’t already have instead of just more of the same.