Manchester United

Man Utd's midfield neglect threatens to undermine the Erik ten Hag era

Craig Vickers
ten Hag on the touchline
ten Hag on the touchline / Jan Kruger/GettyImages

Manchester United sent Erik ten Hag into a gunfight armed only with a knife.

The scale of neglect on this United squad over recent years was laid bare in the Dutchman's league bow on the Old Trafford touchline, with Brighton worthy winners as they underscored their superior individual quality in the midfield area.

As if to press home to point, United were bested on an individual level by a team who finished 9th last season and had their best performer in the role, Yves Bissouma, pinched by Tottenham during the summer.

Sky Sports pundit Karen Carney offered an accurate assessment of United's predicament post-match, highlighting Moises Caicedo's imperious midfield display for the Seagulls and concluding that ten Hag's side 'probably don't lose' the game if the Ecuadorian is donning a Man Utd jersey.

Once again the top-heavy make-up of United's squad was evident. Ten Hag opted for a fluid frontline that afforded both Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes the license to drop into dangerous central spaces, but the home side struggled to access either player with any great regularity.

In defence, Lisandro Martinez made his league debut alongside Harry Maguire, but the Argentine was undermined in possession by an absence of willing receivers in midfield. The booking that the 24-year-old received on the stroke of half-time was a byproduct of his inability to find an available pass as he was caught dawdling on the ball at the halfway line.

There was undoubted excitement surrounding ten Hag's league debut on the Old Trafford touchline after a pre-season where his DNA was all over United's attacking foundations.

And yet Brighton provided an immediate kryptonite. In many ways, Graham Potter's possession-based football provides a certain level of aspiration for ten Hag in the short-term with this United squad. The Seagulls move possession with conviction and, crucially, they have the individual star power to execute their manager's vision.

Fred was caught on the ball inside his own defensive third within minutes, while McTominay's lack of serenity in midfield ought to have seen him dismissed for a wild follow through on Caicedo in the first half.

This season marks the fourth consecutive year in which the Scotland international has started in midfield on the opening weekend for United. A generous assessment would focus on United's lack of evolution in the area, while a more scathing verdict would centre on the club's acceptance of mediocrity in the position.

After a summer of intense speculation, ten Hag appears to be in a losing battle in his pursuit for Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. The Dutchman would provide an immediate upgrade in the centre of the pitch for the Old Trafford club, but United cannot afford to waste any more time as the transfer window draws towards its conclusion.

It is small wonder that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer developed a reputation as a Man Utd manager entirely reliant on the individual attacking firepower at his disposal. With the recruitment department having overlooked the central midfield position for such an extended period of time, Solskjaer lacked the foundations to implement an effective possession structure.

If United aren't careful, it could also undermine ten Hag's tenure.