It has become a cliché to talk of United’s weakness in midfield. Often cited as the club’s last truly complete midfielder, Roy Keane and his shadow loom large over many discussions on this most crucial area of the pitch. The razor-tongued Irishman was of course irreplaceable, but, Carrick aside, few of the signings since the mid-2000s conjured up any real hope of recapturing that missing solidity. Indeed, until the two midfield acquisitions this summer, United’s midfield still felt light in both numbers and quality.
Even more so than with the defence, much is dependent on how LVG decides to play in the centre of the park. He seems to favour deploying a three-man midfield, and we should expect to see Carrick (or perhaps Schneiderlin or Blind) at the base of the three in the more defensive role. Ahead of them, any two of Schneiderlin, Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Mata or Fellaini looks likely. Out wide, we should probably expect to see the wings advanced more in support of the striker in a classic Dutch 4-3-3. LVG will certainly be tempted to use Mata again as his “false winger” on the right, whereas Depay, Young and Januzaj may compete for a spot on the left. The manager may even opt to go with the pre-season system of a player “in the hole”, meaning Rooney has even more close support, but it remains to be seen whether Van Gaal will spend another season tinkering with his tactics after constructing a trimmed-down squad seemingly built for a Dutch style.
There isn’t much doubt that, on paper, this midfield is the best that United has had in years, with a fantastic blend of experience, industry and creativity. The main hope now is that LVG will get it all working. These are definitely his signings this year, and he’s had a full season to figure out a plan, so if it doesn’t come together, serious questions will have to be asked.
SOLIDITY AND STARDUST
Should the new-look midfield click into gear quickly this season, it will seem like we are in a different era altogether to the later Fergie years. Anderson, Cleverley, Park, Fletcher and a fading Scholes sought to provide the engine that Carrick so desperately needed to compliment his game, but the truth is that none could reliably provide consistent top-class performances. It is, then, a great pleasure to welcome both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin to the club this season. The German maestro comes with a wealth of experience and a world class mental game; injuries permitting, he will add genuine quality to LVG’s midfield. The latter arrives at Old Trafford having broken into the French national team off the back of several seasons of industrious Premier League performances with Southampton.
This newly acquired solidity can be complimented this season by the stardust of a few high quality creative minds. As well as the work rate he offers, Ander Herrera possesses a stereotypically Spanish sharp mind, and both his link-up with Juan Mata and goalscoring ability was a joy to behold last season. With Di Maria’s move to PSG on the verge of completion, a link to the attack will be vital in unlocking stubborn defences over the season. A solid base of Carrick, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and perhaps Fellaini provides the platform for some magic further forward, but how we move from control to conjury in practice remains to be seen.
HITS, MISSES AND ONES TO WATCH
Despite certain caveats over the formation the manager will deploy, the midfield – more than any other area – looks set to be central to United’s performances this season. The fitness of a certain German has been questioned by his former manager, and with an ageing Michael Carrick, there may be a couple of times during the season where the centre of the park looks flimsy again. That said, the boost in numbers will be gratefully received by LVG and the fans alike as United aim to perform to a high standard across four competitions once again.
We therefore arrive at the point where it’s time to make a few predictions for the coming season. Who will “boss the midfield”? Who will fade out of the squad? Which players should we keep an eye on?
HIT – MORGAN SCHNEIDERLIN
It’s always a dangerous game to predict a new signing will become an instant hit, but surely the composed Frenchman has all the tools to step up to the mark at Old Trafford. He puts up the numbers in terms of completed tackles and, patchy disciplinary record aside, will add steel to compliment Carrick and Schweinsteiger’s reading of the game. As well as tackles though, the former Southampton man has one of the best pass-completion rates in the league, and is adept at creating chances for his team. Expect him to start many a Premier League game as he brings a Keane-esque work rate to the centre of the park.
HIT – JUAN MATA
That the former Chelsea man spent a few months putting in a shift during the failed Moyes experiment, all with a smile on his face, is of great credit to Mata. He grew further into his position in the squad as chief creator last season, as LVG eventually settled on the “false winger” role as his most productive place on the pitch. His magic feet are certain to once again provide goals and assists as the play flows through him with a certain majestic air. Indeed, if he can score a goal this season that is just half as good as that goal at Anfield, he will become a player fans will speak of for years to come.
HIT – ANDER HERRERA
Surely United’s best signing of the 2014 summer window, the Basque-born former Bilbao man looks set to continue last season’s form into 2015/16. He brings an extra dimension to United’s midfield, complementing both the attack and defence with his industry and flair. Add to that his recent goalscoring record, plus his almost telepathic link up with Juan Mata, and Herrera’s game looks almost complete. Expect many an action-packed performance as he continues to thrive in the presence of Schweinsteiger, Carrick and Schneiderlin.
MISS – MAROUANE FELLAINI
If Schneiderlin can be described as surgical in the tackle, then Fellaini is a blunt instrument. Though it feels trite to chide the former Everton man for his flailing physicality and lack of an all-round game, it is surely fair to consider his place in the squad as “under threat” by the new acquisitions. In the interests of balance, Fellaini was used to great effect by Van Gaal as a “withdrawn target man,” but his performances quickly dropped off after a six week renaissance. This will probably be his last season in a United shirt.
MISS – DALEY BLIND
The former Ajax man brings flexibility and a Dutch touch that Van Gaal will be very familiar with, but there is a worry that he will see far fewer minutes this year in his favoured defensive midfield spot. Like John O’Shea before him, the Dutchman’s versatility is perhaps the thing that threatens to undermine his United career, as the manager looks to use him in a variety of positions behind the midfield. Though it would be unfair to call Blind a true “miss”, his lack of speed and status as a classic squaddie may mean he is easy to replace in the near future.
ONE TO WATCH – BASTIAN SCHWEINSTEIGER
The reaction to Schweinsteiger’s arrival at United was befitting of a player with such an incredible record. His quality is beyond question, and his experience is bound to benefit the team. How quickly the 31-year-old will adapt to the rigours of the Premier League and the lack of a winter break remains to be seen, however. He has started only 82 times for Bayern in the past 4 seasons, and Franz Beckenbauer has gone as far as saying a move to the MLS would have made more sense. Hopefully United’s first German star will force the honourary Bayern president to eat his words, but there remains an air of uncertainty about exactly what kind of contribution he can make.
ONE TO WATCH – ANDREAS PEREIRA
Although possibly yet to be sent out on loan, the Brazilian U20 World Cup star has a turn of pace and that uniquely Brazilian gift for conjuring up goals out of thin air. His goal against Serbia U20s is one Neymar would be proud of – he accelerates, slows down, ducks and weaves before curling past the keeper. Perhaps used in a more advanced role, Pereira could yet be deployed in central midfield against weaker opposition or where a spark is needed to change the game.
UP NEXT …ATTACK
In the final 2015/16 squad preview, we look at United’s attacking options, where the departure of two (former?) world class strikers could leave United lacking. Whether LVG plays a lone striker, a partner in the hole or a Dutch style wide three, the forward line is one with options but not too much depth. Will the Iron Tulip spring a surprise in this area in the coming weeks, or should we give up hope? United have been linked with a number of forwards, as is perennially the case, and another top signing would surely put United’s squad up there with the best in the league.