It's Quite Simple Manchester United - You Need to Sign a Defensive Midfielder

Mitchell Wilks
Dec 14, 2020, 4:30 PM GMT
Manchester United played a safe game against Manchester City
Manchester United played a safe game against Manchester City | Michael Regan/Getty Images

In a derby that made history for all the wrong reasons, Manchester United and Manchester City played out a lifeless 0-0 stalemate at the weekend; a contest so dour that it immediately vaulted towards the top of an imaginary 'worst ever Manchester derbies' list.

The game suffered from the lack of atmosphere - owing to playing in an empty stadium - and both teams seemed more than comfortable to take home a point, rather than risk breaking the mould to try and snatch a late win.

Truthfully, was it a decent point for both sides? Yes, especially considering most of the other teams in the hunt for the Premier League title and top four also dropped points.

But does that make everything bright and rosy, though? Absolutely not.

The lack of bite from either team and the subsequent feeling of content with a point is an acknowledgement that both United and City have a number of problems to address. And while you can pick holes in United from top to bottom these days, one of the more obvious ones is the lack of a formation that gets the best out of the squad.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer regularly sets up his side to play in a 4-2-3-1, with a double midfield pivot present to protect an inconsistent defence and an attacking quartet that thrives on the break. It doesn't work quite like that, though, and in big games like the derby, it's exposed United for not getting the best out of the kinds of players they have.

A simple tweak to a 4-3-3 could suddenly transform them into a side with a more coherent identity and consistent style of play that helps them break teams down more efficiently, while still allowing them to defend in numbers. 'Simple' being simple for most clubs, and most likely a five-year military operation for those in charge at the Red Devils.

The most obvious beneficiary to the system - and this isn't the first time this will have been suggested - is Paul Pogba, who thrived at Juventus on the left of a similar system.

With time, and a bit of patience, the best would come out of the Frenchman in a balanced trio, rather than being deployed far too deep to influence the game. Even if Pogba is to leave, it still benefits Donny van de Beek, who could move around freely to break opposition lines, and Scott McTominay, too - whose immense physical attributes are tailor made for an energetic three-man setup.

As for Bruno Fernandes, the Portugal international would make United tick no matter what position he played in, thus playing within a more balanced trio could only continue to prove fruitful.

The one issue that would hold the Red Devils back currently is the lack of a true defensive midfielder. The criticism of McTominay comes because he simply isn't that, and as good as Fred is at breaking up play, his lack of positional discipline and technical ability would prove problematic in the long term. As for Nemanja Matic, he's as good as done - and handing him a three-year contract extension was about as useful as WWE bringing back Kevin Nash, solely to squash their world champion in 2011.

The Brazilian would do a job in the short-term and then continue his role as a competent rotation arm, with the ideal scenario being that United sign a proper defensive midfielder with technical ability in the January transfer window. That then allows United to find their best pairing ahead of this defensive midfielder from the wealth of options they have.

Fred would make a solid squad option should United sign a starting defensive midfielder
Fred would make a solid squad option should United sign a starting defensive midfielder | Michael Regan/Getty Images

Be it McTominay and Fernandes, Van de Beek and Fernandes or even Pogba should he somehow remain at Old Trafford, the Red Devils would have plenty of options. Sure, swapping and switching could prove costly and they would eventually have to settle on an established three, but the options for rotation are there, as is competition for places - which is something the club has lacked for far too long.

Being able to deploy a midfield three not only would get the best out of the midfield depth United currently have at the club, but also allow them to play a front three which benefits Solskjaer's preference of counter attacking football and reduce the need for an out-and-out number nine in the short-term.

The 4-2-3-1 relies on a world class centre forward which United lack, while none of their forwards seem to quite understand how to play in the front two of the diamond formation.

Marcus Rashford struggles when not deployed on the left of the attack
Marcus Rashford struggles when not deployed on the left of the attack | Michael Regan/Getty Images

It's all very hypothetical, and the most simplistic of changes seem to be exactly what Manchester United struggle to get right these days, but shifting into a 4-3-3 and signing the right defensive midfielder in January to complete the trio might be the key to Solskjaer extracting the maximum out of a squad with potential.

Time will tell if Solskjaer agrees, but the weekend's evidence would suggest it's worth giving it a go.