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The midfield conundrum at Manchester United

Kuria Mbugua makes his OOTB debut with an analysis of the midfield problems that Jose Mourinho is facing at Manchester United right now.


As Marouane Fellaini put it, Manchester United are in a mini-crisis. 3 consecutive losses are not necessarily enough to warrant executive action against a manager, but they certainly have set alarm bells ringing, especially when the manager is the self-proclaimed Special One. United were certainly looking strong challengers for the Premier League title, but after a bad performance at the Manchester Derby (which they could easily have lost by 4 goals) and 2 losses to opposition they should have dispatched with relative ease, they are giving their doubters voice. Something is wrong.

The brunt of the blame seems to have been laid squarely on Paul Pogba, by virtue of his world-record transfer fee. A footballer worth £89 million must be something close to Superman, or at least that is what the internet expects. But United’s problems surely cannot be blamed on one player. The whole squad suddenly looks tired, unmotivated and apathetic. Even shining lights like new signings Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly seem to have lost their spark. They need to regain their panache if they are to avoid another year of embarrassment for United.

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Mou may also need to rethink his starting XI too in my opinion, especially his midfield. His teams invariably play a 4-2-3-1 formation, and he has shown a liking towards marauding fullbacks. As the fullbacks push forward, the center backs move nearer the half-way line to compress play into the opposition’s half. The defensive midfielder, or number 6, then drops back in between the center backs to form a back 3. This allows the rest of the team to attack the opposition, and offers protection against counters.  Thus, in attacking phases, the team usually plays somewhere in between 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3 formations. When the ball is lost and the team gets into defensive phases, the initial 4-5-1 shape is returned. As the center backs retreat towards the box, the 6 is supposed to patrol the area between the back 4 and the center circle and exert pressure on the attacking playmakers, assisted by the central midfielder, or number 8. Therefore, the two players, especially the number 6, have to be disciplined defensively and highly adept at positioning.

The Makelele role

Mourinho’s best number 6 players have always had these attributes. Think of Xabi Alonso, Nemanja Matic, Javier Zanetti and Claude Makelele (the latter was so good at his job that the number 6 position has since been nicknamed the Makelele role). These players are/were considered the engine of their teams, the foundation on which the team builds attacks. The Argentines call such a player a volante, or steering wheel, as he tends to control the speed and direction of attack. The number 6’s importance cannot be overstated, especially in big games, where the game is more often than not won in midfield.

The Manchester Derby was such a game. City won the game with a near-perfect first half, where their midfielders showed tactical and positional superiority over their United counterparts. Daley Blind was partly to blame for the first goal for example, but had either Pogba or Fellaini covered the space around Kelechi Iheanacho in the first place, the attack would most likely have been stopped. Time and again throughout the first half, Kevin de Bruyne had too much space because both of United’s deep midfielders had drifted forward. The situation became a bit better when Ander Herrera came in to play the 6 role, but by then the damage had already been done.

Therein lies one problem with United’s midfield. Both Paul and Marouane are number 8 players, who are not as good defensively are as they are going forward. United’s options for the Makelele role are Michael Carrick, Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin. Carrick may have lost the speed in his legs, as he showed a few too many times last season. Herrera is a bit too rash and a bit too forward-thinking for the 6 role. The best option for me, therefore, would be Schneiderlin. He is calm, composed, positionally adept and is not too quick to push forward in attack. Stats from United’s midfield last season tell a similar story (see’s player comparison matrix between Fellaini, Herrera, Schneiderlin and Carrick below).


Schneiderlin averaged the most tackles and interceptions and had the best pass accuracy per game of the 4 players over the course of 2015/2016. He is clearly the best man for the 6 role at United. Only Mou can say why he has played 10 Premier League minutes in 5 games this season.

Rooney, Rooney, Rooney

The other issue Jose must address is the Rooney question. Wayne is simply not the player he so desperately wanted at Chelsea 3 years ago. He has lost pace, his first touch has deteriorated, and he doesn’t have the same eye for goals and chances any more. Of course, he’s still a legend and the club captain, but it definitely time to consider not starting him in every game. Zlatan’s presence also lessens Rooney’s influence on the game. Zlatan likes to collect the ball from deeper and either hold up play to allow others to make attacking runs, or dribble and shoot, essentially playing a 9-and-a-half role. This tends to force Rooney either wide or deep, pushing him out of his best position. Add that to Wayne’s reduced technical ability over time, and justifying his claim for a regular starting berth becomes difficult.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United shoots on goal during the EFL Cup Third Round match between Northampton Town and Manchester United at Sixfields on September 21, 2016 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Who then should United play in the number 10 position instead? Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are the first names that come to mind. Mata has played his best games in a United shirt at that position, and so has Mkhitaryan for Dortmund. Pogba has also played the 10 role at Juventus, although a bit deeper. He could also be an option to consider.

Pogba essentially has to be one of the first names on United’s team sheet, as he is a world-class midfielder with impressive ball technique and work rate. I think his best positions are either as a number 8 or a deep number 10, as he likes to collect the ball from deep and make mazy runs forward with it. With Schneiderlin at 6 and Pogba at 8, Mata or Mkhitaryan could slot in well at 10. With Pogba at 10, Herrera is the best option at 8, as that would give the former license to roam forward and join the attack. The diversity of Man United’s midfielders can thus be a strength, instead of a liability.


A dream start to the season may soon become a nightmare if Man United’s recent slide continues unchecked. With the first major test failed during the Manchester Derby, and games against Leicester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea looming, it may be time to go back to the drawing board. Rooney and Fellaini are good players, but are not suited to United’s demands at the moment. Schneiderlin is required in the defensive mid position, and Herrera, Mata and Mkhitaryan have serious claims to Rooney’s place in the starting XI. Those midfield changes could be the catalyst to push United back to the top of the Premier League table.

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