Summer Signings Part 2: Manchester United's Midfield Makeover

From Andreas Pereira the pre-season professional to Marouane Fellaini, Manchester United’s recruitment in the middle of the park has been abysmal in recent years.


As the saying goes, games are won and lost in the midfield, and for Manchester United, they have been lost far too often. The entire midfield has been an issue, but the most recurring problem is the number six spot- and the signings made to fix this have been far from effective. Though Nemanja Matic has shown his quality at times, the club haven’t had a top mainstay player in this role since Michael Carrick, who last played more than 10 games for the club in the 2016/17 season. It's now 2022...


This summer, Manchester United have to buy a defensive midfielder, and he has to be a good signing. Erik Ten Hag and Ralf Rangnick undoubtedly have players in mind, but they are currently unknown to the general public, so to cover all bases, we’ll evaluate five, yes, five, different options that have been linked with a move to the club. Those five will be Kalvin Phillips, Boubacar Kamara, Declan Rice, Ruben Neves, and Aurélien Tchouameni, using statistics as well as what I have seen from them over the last season.



 


Defending


Starting off with Aurelien Tchouameni, the Frenchman is one of the most desired players in world football at the moment, and for good reason. At just 22 years old, he has had a fantastic season in Ligue 1 with third placed AS Monaco, having started 31/36 matches so far this season. In terms of suitability to the Premier League, he is physically very good, standing at 6’1”, but can he use this to help defend against typically tough English sides?


He has the highest aerial duel success rate of the five players at 70.3%, whilst also having been involved in the most aerial duels. As you may know, Erik Ten Hag likes to deploy an organised press, covering all opposition passes. Tchouameni has the ability to perform here too, having completed the most successful pressures out of the five. However, he has attempted far more, so he isn’t the one with the highest success rate. This is his national teammate Boubacar Kamara, who has a pressure success rate 4.3% higher than the second-placed Tchouameni. To contrast, Ruben Neves has the lowest, having attempted the second most with 510, but having a success rate of 26.9%.





In the first season especially, the team will have to defend more than Ten Hag would like as they take time to adapt, meaning they will concede more shots that need blocking. Declan Rice is the man that has shown this ability, making 1.65 blocks per game.


Dribbling


At 23 years old, Declan Rice is one of the most highly rated players in the league, having helped England to the Euro 2020 Final, and West Ham United to the Semi-Final of the Europa League on the first time of asking. But what could he do for Manchester United?


“In order to destroy opponents, you need off-the-ball runs,” Ten Hag once said. “Creating space for each other is really important.”

In order to create this off-the-ball movement, a ball carrier is often needed to allow others to rotate, in what is a very fluid system. This is where Rice can come in. The England international has 7.3 carries a game, which is far higher than the other four players, showing he is happy to move and hold onto the ball in progressive areas. This compares to Ajax’s Edson Alvarez, who has 2.27.


A player that is confident on the ball is an absolute must for a team looking to challenge for the title in the not too distant future, which is where Tchouameni comes back in. This season, he has a 73.8% dribble success rate, placing him yet again at the top of his four competitors. Kalvin Phillips is then at the bottom, with 54.5%.


Phillips, who played alongside Declan Rice in England’s recent Euros run, has been unfortunate with injuries this season. This misfortune has carried over to the games he has played, as the man labelled the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ has not impressed on the pitch this season, with the lowest number of touches and carries per game. However it isn’t all doom-and-gloom for Phillips, as he has shown his quality last season, where he impressed as one of Leeds’ standout players in a season they finished 9th in their first year back in the Premier League.





Anyway, enough of these useful stats and onto the more interesting ones. Boubacar Kamara is the leader in what is undoubtedly the most important metric- leading his peers with 0.1 nutmegs a game.


Passing


Though this probably makes Boubacar Kamara Man United-material based on the last 10 years of recruitment, Ten Hag will definitely want more. Nutmegs aren’t the only trick he has up his sleeve though, as he boasts the highest pass completion rate, which admittedly doesn't scream 'joga bonito', but is useful nonetheless. This shows that at just 22 years old, he has the maturity to make and complete the correct pass, and although an efficient counter-press is ideal, it is best not to lose the ball in the first place (yes Bruno, I’m looking at you…)


As is a recurring theme when discussing good players for a Ten Hag system, the word ‘progressive’ comes up again, this time in terms of Kamara’s strengths. Kamara has the highest progressive distance covered from passes, covering around 267 metres towards the opposition goal per game. The player who then claims the highest total distance (i.e. passes in any direction) is then Wolverhampton’s Ruben Neves. This statistic can be looked at two ways; either he looks after the ball well, ensuring not to give it away too much, or isn’t progressive enough and too often plays the obvious pass. This is down to personal opinion and is dependent on how much other players give the ball away, but despite playing for a team famous (some would say infamous) for defending, Neves is definitely confident on the ball.


Ease of extraction


As we did in the first article on centre-backs (click here to give that a read), it makes sense to again compare how easy/likely a move to Manchester United would actually be for these players.


Boubacar Kamara is the first of three players that the club won’t have to completely break the bank on- potentially making these the most realistic. In what many think would be too sensible a signing for the club to do, Kamara is a free-agent this summer. In addition to this, his wage demand is unlikely to be excessively high, and this overall cheap cost enables the club to obtain a promising defensive midfielder whilst also saving money for other signings. Though he was linked to the club last summer and in January (alongside now-Juventus midfielder Denis Zakaria), these links have died down. Whether the new boss will want Kamara is yet to be seen, but it is likely that the club could strike a deal if he is a man on Ten Hag’s list.


Moving onto potentially the hardest deal to do, Declan Rice is the move that looks the most unlikely. Though he has been reported to be interested in a deal in the past, it is generally accepted that his first choice would be a move to Chelsea, and this could be a statement signing that their new owners may look to make. Another nail in the barrel is the asking price, and West Ham’s willingness to sell in general. David Moyes recently said in a press-conference that the "minimum" price for him would be £150 million- a fee that even West Ham fans would struggle to justify. Though he has expressed his desire to leave through not signing three consecutive contract proposals from his club, his contract runs until 2024, so the power is in West Ham's hands. This is all summarised by journalist Samuel Luckhurst explaining that, “Man United have all but conceded any plans to sign him this year."


A slightly more feasible signing is Aurelien Tchouameni. Like Declan Rice, Tchouameni’s contract runs until 2024, but the difference is that his club's asking price is considerably lower. That said, this is all relative, with Monaco’s asking price being around €80 million, according to Le Parisien- a fee United would not be too keen on, considering the number of players needed this summer. There will also be competition from Champions League clubs for him, with reports coming out that Liverpool, PSG and Real Madrid all want to sign the Frenchman. As a result, it may be the club that coughs up the money that ends up with the player, and Manchester United do love a good old marquee signing, so if you combine this with Ten Hag’s project, we may have a chance.


Moving on to a player who Wolves manager, Bruno Lage, said is worth “€100m or more”, we have Ruben Neves. Though this is definitely a number to be scared of if you would like Neves at the club, it seems very unlikely that Wolves would actually want this much. One hurdle would be convincing him of the project though, as The Mail have reported that Arsenal are interested too, in a deal where the player reportedly wants to stay in the Premier League. Arsenal are currently sat one point ahead of top 4 rivals Tottenham with two games to play, so if the red side of North London were to get that coveted UCL spot, Neves may prefer to go there.


Finally, we have Kalvin Phillips. Having been at Leeds since 2010, it has been said that he may not fancy a move to age-old rivals Manchester United. So much so that he said in a recent interview with Sky that he is, “Leeds through and through” amidst interest from Old Trafford. However, the club are currently keeping him on their watch list. Phillips could be sold for as little as £25 million if Leeds are relegated, which is the way things are looking at the moment with two games left to play. As reported by Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News, United are currently still working on a deal for the 26 year old, which is said to be alongside, and not instead of, the current move for Frenkie de Jong (de Jong has recently been linked to Old Trafford, click here to read our article discussing the move.)


The day after winning the Eredivisie title with Ajax, Ten Hag is said to have had a meeting with his future assistants and Manchester United representatives (reportedly John Murtough) in Amsterdam about recruitment. If this was the case, the defensive midfield spot will have been a focal point of the conversation. Inevitably, more light will be shed on the transfer speculation in the coming weeks and months, in what will be a very exciting window for Manchester United fans. as we wait for a new dawn on the club.


Stay tuned to UtdActive for all your news, analysis and everything in between!






Statistics used from FBref (Football Statistics and History | FBref.com)

168 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All