Harmony, Control and the Midfield Conundrum

September 13, 2016

 

There are some problems money can't solve. That fact was all too apparent yesterday as Manchester United were outplayed by local rivals Manchester City in the most recent edition of the derby. Despite United's record outlay on midfielder Paul Pogba, they struggled to get hold of the game for long periods of time. It was, instead, Pep Guardiola's City who looked a more complete and balanced unit, particularly in midfield. Understandably, Kevin de Bruyne took most of the plaudits, with a performance that was somewhat reminiscent of a young Paul Scholes - elusive but deadly, skillful without being ostentatious, and with a demeanour that belies his outrageous gifts. But de Bruyne's exploits were merely the end product of a City midfield that impressed with its single-minded brilliance in the first 35 minutes of the match.

 

United's midfield, in contrast, appeared disjointed and lethargic. Jose Mourinho's surprising, and ultimately failed, selection of Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan no doubt played a major part in City's initial dominance. But it also revealed that Mourinho has yet to uncover his preferred midfield formation and personnel, with questions surrounding the team's core. In order for Mourinho's United to challenge for top honours, he will need to bring two elements - harmony and control - to his midfield.

 

A midfield in harmony operates as a seamless unit, notable for its coordination rather than individual brilliance. It also means that the midfield is able to effortlessly make the transition from defense to attack, and back to defense again. Meanwhile, control in the modern game is a function of both technical ability and composure. The most important source of control is a defensive midfield pivot. And rather than applauding a defensive midfielder for making tackle after tackle, we should praise the player who skillfully anticipates danger before it occurs. 

 

It's clear that United's midfield has yet to achieve such harmony and control. Personally, I'm hoping that Mourinho will experiment with different personnel in a 4-3-3 in the near future. Marouane Fellaini has operated as United's deep-lying midfielder for most of this young season. It's striking how much he's improved from the hapless figure of the David Moyes era, but his yeoman's work still appears reactive rather than proactive. While a better player than United fans have seen over the past 3 years, he doesn't seem blessed with the composure of a Carrick or Busquets, or the easy simplicity of a Makelele-style pivot. After an inconsistent first season, Morgan Schneiderlin seems a natural option to use in this role. Another option (despite his howler in the derby) is Daley Blind. He lacks Fellaini's physicality, but has exceptional composure, and is easily one of the best passers at the club. He may find his skills better suited to being a midfield pivot than being a centre-back.

 

In front of either Schneiderlin or Blind, Pogba and Ander Herrera would seem the perfect duo. Pogba, of course, is the star man with his magnificent combination of athleticism and skill, as well as his hefty price tag. But Herrera has shown repeatedly that he marries technical excellence with the tigerish tenacity needed as part of a midfield three. His introduction at half-time yesterday added much needed bite to United's midfield. 

 

A trio like that would provide the ideal harmony and control for United's front three to prosper, with Fellaini providing cover for Pogba and Herrera. Debating the ideal front three is a separate argument, with Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Martial, Rashford, Mata and Mkhitaryan all having strong claims (Rooney, increasingly by seniority and reputation, rather than pure merit. And as much as I love Lingard, it seems unlikely that either he or Ashley Young can or should dislodge more talented teammates. Memphis, meanwhile, will need to play his socks off in whatever limited game time he gets if he wants to be any part of this conversation.) It's worth noting that the pace provided by the likes of Rashford, Martial and Mkhitaryan is its own form of control, pressing the opposition back and relieving the defence and midfield. 

 

None of this will come as news to Jose Mourinho, who has won everything the game has to offer. The original Makelele, of course, was the fulcrum that led to Mourinho's first title victory at Chelsea. And I certainly don't want to over-react to yesterday's defeat and forget the impressive performances that preceded it. But let's hope that Jose solves his midfield conundrum sooner rather than later. With greater harmony and control, United could be a much more dangerous beast in the return fixture at the Etihad. 

 

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