If defeats for both Manchester clubs in UEFA’s two showpiece finals in the past week have taught us anything, it’s not to meddle with winning formulas. And not to undervalue your holding midfielder.
Just as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer moved away from the partnership between Fred and Scott McTominay that has been Manchester United’s foundation for two seasons, Pep Guardiola ditched his own defensive midfield mainstay for Man City against Chelsea with Fernandinho and Rodri both benched.
And so the teams placed first and second in Europe’s best league were toppled in finals by England’s fourth and Spain’s seventh-best sides.
The value of the deep-lying midfielder is not lost on football fans anymore, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Chelsea’s N’golo Kante boss the Champions League final in Porto and win Man Of The Match. The Frenchman is way beyond being described as an ‘unsung hero’ — although some media outlets did reach for that term on Saturday night — so Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola were foolish to scrap their own engine room scrappers.
Perhaps Solskjaer’s midfield selection against Villarreal was more understandable on the night, than Guardiola’s faux pas. He predicted Villarreal’s gameplan, to be fair, that the La Liga side would sit deep and ask United to break them down, so picked Paul Pogba to partner McTominay at the base of his midfield.
Is Rice the right man for United? Let us know in the comments here.
The idea was that Pogba could influence the game and unlock Unai Emery’s side from a deeper position.
But he ignored the legs of Fred and how the Brazilian, while unglamorous and unfashionable with many United fans, can break up counter-attacks and win the ball back in key positions, to set up United’s own forays forward.
Fred’s form going into the Villarreal game wasn’t great, so he paid the price — as others have done in the past — for United’s desire to accommodate Pogba.
Yet defeat in the final has only served to magnify United’s latest Pogba dilemma, the consequences of which could have major ramifications for Fred, McTominay and the make-up of Solskjaer’s midfield.
The issue United have always had with Pogba, especially under Solskjaer and his favoured 4-2-3-1, is that he doesn’t particularly fit into any role in the system. He’s not a true defensive midfielder, he’s not a No.10 of Bruno Fernandes’ ilk and while he’s enjoyed some impressive displays out wide, he’s not a winger either.
If Pogba does indeed depart United this summer — still very much a possibility amid interest from around Europe, and with one year on his contract — it’s always been accepted that the club must replace him with two players. One in a deeper role, and one more attacking.
Donny van de Beek was supposed to be the heir in waiting, though his debut campaign at Old Trafford has been a struggle.
The Dutchman has shone briefly in deeper roles, but you feel United need to add a true defensive midfield upgrade on Fred and McTominay (to accompany one of them), with Declan Rice seen as the ideal target.
Sign up to get even more from our Man United coverage
We want your views, Reds. You can become even more involved with our Man United coverage by signing up. This will unlock a whole host of things – including joining the comments and taking part in our special Q&As, where you can speak directly to our reporters about what’s happening at Old Trafford this week and beyond.
Nemanja Matic will hang around as a back-up, but Rice is the coming force in English football right now. Captaining West Ham to a top six place and winning a regular England midfield spot all by the age of 22, is no mean feat.
Signing Rice won’t be cheap, but if he can be acquired, he would give Solskjaer the tactical flexibility in midfield even if Pogba heads for the exit door. The Norwegian could pick Rice and Van de Beek together against the ‘lesser’ teams, with Rice and McTominay (or Fred) when he wants that resilient platform in midfield that’s been his trademark.
It all relies on Van de Beek adapting, as others have done, in his second Old Trafford season; and of course on United being able to lure Rice away from the London Stadium.
They might find Pogba isn’t such a seismic loss after all. It will be Solskjaer’s duty to get the midfield balance right, as he failed to do in Gdansk on Wednesday.