Manchester United’s midfield continues to be one of the enduring mysteries of modern football. It is difficult to think of another major club who have been so consistently and conspicuously lacking in this area of squad depth. Real Madrid can draw upon Mateo Kovacic from the bench. Bayern Munich can name Renato Sanches among their substitutes. Meanwhile, United find themselves relying on Marouane Fellaini far more than they ought to.
Fellaini is far more the symptom of United’s problems in this area than the cause. Since he and Michael Carrick both lack pace it falls to Ander Herrera to cover a prodigious amount of ground, which in turn can affect the Spaniard’s ability to dictate the tempo of games. Much has been made of Herrera’s impressive statistics this season, and how they compare very favourably to those of Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante. But just because Herrera can run everywhere, that does not mean that he should. He is having an exceptional year, but the balance of his workload should be cause for concern. Too much has apparently been gambled on his fitness and ability to avoid suspension, and United’s season may yet suffer gravely because of it. A box-to-box midfielder is little use if he is exhausted.
United need at least two recruits in this area this summer. They have been linked with Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko and Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi, and the temptation is to say that they should probably consider buying both. Too often, in the games between teams at the top of the table, Jose Mourinho has deployed his players in too conservative a fashion.
This is partly down to his own fixation with safety-first, but also due to the personnel he has at his disposal. With United’s recent injuries, it is all the more confusing why Morgan Schneiderlin was released at that point of the season. The argument seems to be that Fellaini offers more in an attacking sense, but Schneiderlin gave a greater cohesion to the midfield, as well as providing better distribution. United’s central midfield malaise is all the more puzzling because they obviously have the resources to have addressed this issue.
Of course, some of those resources have been spent on Paul Pogba. If there is any silver lining to the Frenchman being sidelined through injury, it is that his absence has proven just how essential he is to United’s success. There are many, remarkably, who still doubt Pogba’s value to this team, but the briefest look at either of United’s last two games would reveal why this is a questionable stance.
Without Pogba’s ability to beat a man off the dribble in midfield, deprived of his long and short passing that so swiftly turns defence to attack, United have instantly looked even more makeshift. They have also proven that, even with his addition to the squad last summer, their midfield is still very much under construction. This is, of course, a problem that has long predated Mourinho, with Sir Alex Ferguson even at his peak capable of some unusual selections in this area. It is perhaps surprising, yet maybe also telling, that Mourinho has not used Daley Blind much in central midfield, perhaps believing that his fine positioning does not make up for his lack of speed.
All in all, it is a curious situation, and maybe speaks to Mourinho’s overconfidence — a respect in which he resembles Pep Guardiola, for so long touted as his closest rival. Mourinho has spoken several times this season of the phone call that he gave Fellaini at the start of the season, in which he convinced the Belgian that he was still very much a part of his plans. Perhaps that phone call was meant to coax consistent performances of an elite level from Fellaini — but the reality is that his midfielder has most likely given almost the very best that he can, and that is significantly less than what United need.
Similarly, Guardiola has at times tried to make diligent but limited players follow his highly complex instructions, but he is surely coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer coaching the likes of Philipp Lahm. For all of their talents of persuasion, they cannot turn these foot soldiers into generals.
This year looks set to be a repeated if not harrowing lesson of what happens when you go into a Premier League season ill-equipped. United’s frail home form is as alarming as it is supremely avoidable. The obvious and severe truth is that, especially when you are not playing well, players of the greatest quality can rescue you — and that United have not invested in nearly enough of them. If they continue to make this omission, then the gap between them and their rivals is only set to accelerate.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.