Manchester United must try and give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his perfect midfield
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer discussed how he saw his ideal Manchester United midfield lining up he gave an insight into what he wants by naming three former reds.
Rather than fixate on a specialist No. 6 or No. 8, Solskjaer wants all-rounders in the centre of the pitch, and to illustrate his point he went into the United annals.
“Today’s football is about he’s a good 6, 8, 10 back in the day you had proper midfielders, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Brian Robson,” said Solskjaer.
“You see players out there who can attack and defend and that’s what we look for, midfielders who are complete and we try to develop that.”
A midfield trio of Keane, Scholes and Robson at their peak would be pretty handy for United right now. In fact that midfield would have graced any side in the world when they were at their best.
It’s certainly a combination that would excel ahead of Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic at the moment, as good as those players are.
It could certainly be argued that there is an unnecessary focus on specialisations in midfield, but then United have this themselves with Bruno Fernandes, who is very much a No. 10 in this 4-2-3-1, although he’s perhaps more of a forward than a midfielder.
Paul Pogba probably fits the bill as an all-rounder but when he’s been deployed centrally United are yet to build the ideal framework for him to shine. Neither Fred nor McTominay are natural defensive midfielders. The former is a bundle of high-pressing energy all over the pitch and the latter is more dangerous when given licence to break forward.
But the focus on specialisation, of world-class holding midfielders or creative playmakers, means all-rounders are few and far between now. Building a midfield capable of winning titles that features players who can do a bit of everything might remain a pipedream.
Maybe the closest example for what Solskjaer wants is the Liverpool side that won the title two years ago. In Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner it had midfielders who could do a bit of everything without really shining at anything, but they had the ability to do that because they had Fabinho, an elite-level holding midfielder, behind them.
At the moment United lack that. Solskjaer also spoke yesterday about the balance and making sure you don’t commit too many forward or risk getting countered on, but at times this season that balance has been lacking. Against Wolves, when Fred and Pogba played as the pivots, there were times United attacked and Fred was the deepest midfielder, barely 10 yards outside the Wolves box.
On a couple of occasions, Wolves pounced on a stray pass and countered at speed, finding it too easy to bypass the United midfield. In Switzerland on Tuesday, when Donny van de Beek replaced Pogba, there were similar issues before the red card. Getting that balance right remains a work in progress.
That might be easier to do with a 4-3-3, when there is only one deep midfielder, rather than in a 4-2-3-1, when communication and positioning are key. But if Solskjaer opts to change that formation then he has to consider the danger in taking Fernandes away from the position he has been thriving in, playing so close to the opposition box.
Central midfield is the one area United didn’t strengthen in this summer where it looked like they needed a new first-team regular. The additions of Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo have considerably improved Solskjaer’s side, but midfield remains something of an issue.
With no new faces, the partnerships are likely to remain the same. Fred and McTominay excelled in the 5-1 thrashing of Leeds, but McTominay hasn’t started since as a result of groin surgery.
There are options to break that partnership up, which includes more attack-minded players in Pogba or Van de Beek, a player who having been schooled at Ajax should excel in showing some midfield versatility.
How the set-up in the centre of the pitch changes this season, with Varane adding quality defensively and more attackers to fit into the final third, might give us more of an idea of what Solskjaer wants in midfield, but his dream of all-rounder filling those roles might just remain that.