How Man Utd’s midfield could look under Erik ten Hag & roles of Donny van de Beek & James Garner

We take a look at Manchester United’s midfield and why the Fred and Scott McTominay partnership may be nearing its conclusion.
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Midfield has been a problem position for Manchester United this season, and should be one of Erik ten Hag’s chief areas of concerns when he takes over in the summer.

The Red Devils announced on Thursday that ten Hag will replace Ralf Rangnick ahead of the 2022/23 campaign, and he will already have begun to draw up plans for United’s squad.

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Despite all their issues in middle this season, there’s no denying that the Red Devils boast plenty of talent in midfield and for ten Hag, it’s a case of harnessing that ability while making a few subtle alterations.

But how will United’s set-up look under the current Ajax manager? We’ve assessed what fans can expect to see in the engine room next term.

Erik ten Hag has been confirmed as Manchester United’s next manager. Credit: Getty.Erik ten Hag has been confirmed as Manchester United’s next manager. Credit: Getty.
Erik ten Hag has been confirmed as Manchester United’s next manager. Credit: Getty.

Ten Hag’s midfield set-up

The Dutchman likes to operate with three players in the centre of the park, one of whom often sits in front of the defence and allows the other two to operate as box-to-box roamers.

Alternatively, ten Hag has played with two holding players and a No.10 who pushes forward and looks to create the lion’s share of chances.

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It can often be a subtle alteration between the two systems, but having three players in the centre is imperative for ten Hag’s system.

The Dutchman likes his Ajax side to switch the ball quickly and not dawdle in possession, while also requiring technically proficient players in the centre.

Which midfielders will leave?

From United’s current squad, Nemanja Matic has already confirmed he is leaving, while Pogba looks likely to follow him out the door.

Nemanja Matic has confirmed he’s leaving Manchester United this summer. Credit: Getty.Nemanja Matic has confirmed he’s leaving Manchester United this summer. Credit: Getty.
Nemanja Matic has confirmed he’s leaving Manchester United this summer. Credit: Getty.

The Frenchman’s contract is set to expire at the end of the season and given he picked up an injury at Anfield on Tuesday, may have played his last game for the club.

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Elsewhere, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, who can also play centrally, are expected to leave in the summer.

Who does that leave United with?

The departures of Matic, Pogba, Mata and Lingard leave United with six players who could be considered midfielders or capable of playing in the No.10 role.

Scott McTominay and Fred offer the closest thing to a defensive midfielder, although both have shown they are not capable of shielding a back four and are better deployed as pressing, high-energy ball winners.

Elsewhere, Bruno Fernandes is the most creative player in this United side, while Hannibal has shown plenty of promise.

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United will also have two returning loanees this summer who will be hoping to force their way into ten Hag’s plans.

James Garner has proved he’s ready to step up to the Premier League and often operates at the base of midfield for Nottingham Forest, where he’s more suited to linking the play and coordinating passes than stopping opposition sides.

James Garner has impressed for Nottingham Forest this season. Credit: Getty.James Garner has impressed for Nottingham Forest this season. Credit: Getty.
James Garner has impressed for Nottingham Forest this season. Credit: Getty.

Meanwhile, Donny van de Beek will also be back at Old Trafford ahead of the new season. He knows ten Hag well from their time at Ajax where they led the Amsterdam club to a Champions League semi-final in 2019, and United fans will hope their new manager can inspire some similarly stirring performances from van de Beek, with the 25-year-old previously playing in several midfield roles under ten Hag.

What about recruitment?

United have midfielders who can press, tackle, create chances and retain possession, but one key area they lack is the ability to protect a defence.

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It’s the sort of role Fabinho or Rodri respectively operate in for Liverpool and Manchester City, or even players such as Thomas Partey, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Wilfred Ndidi carry out elsewhere in the Premier League.

Ten hag needs to prioritise a player in a similar mould, which will allow United’s other midfielders to concentrate on utilising their best assets.

The incoming United boss will also need more than six players in the middle, two of which are youngsters, and ten Hag may decide to target more than one midfield signing this summer.

How will ten Hag’s midfield look?

At this stage, it’s difficult to foresee how United’s midfield will line up next season, and the recruitment of a holding midfielder could, for instance, allow Fred to press and Fernandes to push higher up. Likewise, a sitting player may see van de Beek partner Fernandes and give United more creativity.

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Whatever the case, the latter is a must through the middle for United. The Portugal international hasn’t been at his best in 2021/22, but there’s no denying his quality and attacking threat.

Meanwhile, the addition of a defensive midfielder could result in the fabled ‘McFred’ partnership to disband. The McTominay and Fred axis has been in place for nearly three years at United and while it has been used effectively on occasion, the pair have rarely controlled games or effectively stopped opposition attacks.

The return of Garner also represents an interesting subplot in midfield. While there will be questions surrounding his capability in the Premier League, the likes of Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Kalvin Phillips have effortlessly stepped up from the Championship in recent years.

Garner offers a skillset that none of his fellow midfielders possess, the ability to retain possession from a deeper role and to try to dictate the flow and speed of a game. There are even shades of Michael Carrick in the 21-year-old, who could lead Forest to promotion by the end of this season.

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As for van de Beek, his adaptability may prove important, and he’s capable of playing as a box-to-box midfielder and operating in a more advanced role. Either way, ten Hag certainly knows how to get the best from the on-loan Everton man.

While midfield has proved such a difficult proposition for United this season, there’s plenty for ten Hag to work with if he can make a few additions and deploy the Red Devils’ current stars in their ideal roles.

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