Even as Cristiano Ronaldo marked his Old Trafford homecoming with a brace in an emphatic 4-1 win over Newcastle United, there were signs of Manchester United’s vulnerability. The vulnerability that could prevent them mounting a genuine Premier League title challenge this season.
The starkest depiction of this came in the counter attacking goal Newcastle scored to equalise early in the second half, when Allan Saint-Maximin left United brutally exposed through the centre of the pitch to set up Javier Manquillo for a low finish across David de Gea and into the far corner of the net.
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw were both caught too high up the pitch, and so they could be blamed for what unfolded. However, this entire scenario could have been avoided had Manchester United had a strong presence at the base of their midfield unit. Without that presence, their defence - namely, Raphael Varane - was left to do it all on their own.
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Declan Rice might have stopped the break. The 22-year-old has been strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford and it’s easy to see why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might be interested. Rice would give United structure in the centre of the pitch. He would offer them the kind of protection that neither Fred nor Nemanja Matic can.
While Rice might not be a classic defensive midfielder, there is sound logic behind the belief he would bring balance to Manchester United’s central unit. If Solskjaer wants to use Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in the same midfield, as appears to be the case, he needs a player who can cover a lot of ground behind them. Rice could be that player.
For West Ham, who will face United at the London Stadium on Sunday, Rice sets the tempo. He averages more passes than anyone else (65.5 per match) and more interceptions too (2.3), hinting at his ability to read a game. This anticipation is one of the qualities that has likely led Manchester United to identify the England international as a target.
The goal Rice scored in the Europa League win over Dinamo Zagreb during the week illustrated all he brings to the pitch. He is also capable of starting, and even finishing, attacking moves, averaging an impressive 1.8 key passes per Premier League appearance for West Ham this season.
Manchester United don’t just need a midfield destroyer, they need someone with the technical ability to resist a high press. This is where Fred in particular is frequently found out - see how Wolves’ intensity and tempo left the Brazilian hanging on for dear life, unable to cope under pressure. Rice, as he demonstrated for England at Euro 2020, can handle a high opposition press.
“You don't win a Premier League title with Fred or Scott McTominay. Nemanja Matic - when he was at his peak in his Chelsea days - was better than a Fred or a McTominay,” former Manchester United player and Eurosport columnist Paul Parker writes.
“But if you can have a Matic in there looking to win the Premier League with Manchester United then that isn't right, they need to look for someone more youthful who can destroy attacks and create scoring chances, and everyone needs to know what their tasks are.”
After a blockbuster summer transfer window that saw three world class players signed, it’s clear where Manchester United’s priority for the next window will lie. Their attack is arguably the strongest in the Premier League right now with Maguire and Varane a formidable defensive duo. The weakness comes in the way the attack and defence are linked together.
Solskjaer needs a midfield anchor who can essentially perform the duties of two players, those two players being Fred and Scott McTominay who have been deployed as a two-man base for much of the last two seasons. Rice is one of the few who would be up to that challenge and will have a chance to prove this on Sunday.
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