Thu. Jan 21st, 2021

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Man United have their perfect midfield but they may not start vs Southampton

3 min read

The base of Manchester United’s midfield has been like trying to crack a safe this season, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer trying every possible combination until the vault finally swings open.

After 14 games the United manager might have stumbled on the right union of intensity and quality, but whether the dynamic of Fred and Donny van de Beek remains in place is far from certain.

While the Brazilian and the Dutchman had started together three times previously for United – against Luton, Brighton and RB Leipzig – they were all with Van de Beek in an advanced role, while Fred had either Scott McTominay or Nemanja Matic alongside him.

Against Istanbul Basaksehir Solskjaer finally fielded his two best passers – the injured Paul Pogba aside – in those roles and was rewarded with United’s most coherent attacking performance of the season.


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So much of that was down to Van de Beek, who set the tempo for the display. While a combination of Fred, McTominay and Matic can be too slow in possession, too laboured in moving the ball between the lines, the former Ajax midfielder was the exact opposite. Fred can keep it simple, spreading play wide, and pressing superbly, but Van de Beek’s passes were forward every time, drilling crisp balls into the feet of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial or Edinson Cavani.

That got United on the front foot quickly, not allowing the Istanbul Basaksehir defence time to settle. The movement and interplay from that front four continued to stretch them.

But while the goals and chances flowed, it wasn’t always perfect. United were stretched themselves at times, with Fred and Van de Beek not always positionally perfect to offer protection to the defence.

That is the balance that Solskjaer has to strike and it’s why there are no guarantees that pair will combine against Southampton on Sunday, despite impressing in Europe.

To really make such a midfield dynamic work Solskjaer needs to be able to call on a world-class defensive midfielder or centre backs who are more comfortable in one-on-one defending, which is something he doesn’t have at the moment.

When United conceded 11 goals in their first three Premier League games this season much of the damage was done because the midfield was proving too easy to play through, with Pogba consistently exposed in that role.

Van de Beek may well offer a better shield than Pogba, but starting him and Fred against a better side than a limited Istanbul Basaksehir will be a risk.

While Robbie Savage on BT Sport was effusive in his praise for Van de Beek’s performance, he did wonder what the score would be if United set up this way against Paris Saint-Germain next week. A nine-all draw might have been something of an exaggeration, but you got the point.

There’s no reason why this midfield can’t play against weaker teams domestically and in Europe and they should have played together against West Brom, with the difference in attacking spirit and quality between that performance and this one stark. But whether Solskjaer will trust them in the biggest games and against sides like Southampton that pose a good attacking threat remains to be seen.

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You could see in the second half against the Turkish champions, as United gradually took their foot off the pedal and lost control of the game, that Fred and Van de Beek became stretched as they tried to put out fires. With the visitors putting the pressure on Solskjaer called for Matic to firmly bolt the back door, allowing Van de Beek to display his range of passing once more in setting Mason Greenwood free for the fourth goal.

We’ll find out on Sunday whether Solskjaer sees this as a midfield he can build around, but if Van de Beek finds himself back on the bench it would be an unjust demotion.

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