Scott McTomiany and Fred may have combined for the only goal as Manchester United beat Aston Villa 1-0 on Monday night, but the game only served as further proof this is a midfield partnership which just isn’t working.
Together, they simply cannot shield a back four - as was shown from Villa’s second-half onslaught in the FA Cup third-round tie, and for their energy and all-action style, between them McTominay and Fred are incapable of preventing opposition attacks.
On countless occasions this season, sides have broken through the centre of the Red Devils with relative ease, even Newcastle United managed it during the recent trip to St James’ Park.
That’s not to say McTominay and Fred offer nothing to this side - the former was one of United’s best performers against Villa, as he pressed the opposition midfield, put in strong tackles and offered an attacking threat with three first-half efforts.
As for Fred, it was more of a mixed night for him, as he won possession on several occasions from the Villa midfield, but was sloppy on the ball and took too many heavy touches.
However, it’s not what the midfielders offer individually, but as a duo, that must be concerning for Ralf Rangnick, who admitted after the game his side struggled in the middle and added the performance only confirmed his belief the Red Devils have to play with three in the centre.
“We were still struggling in the centre of the pitch, and that’s also where they had their moments where they could have scored,” the interim United manager told reporters post-match.
But with Bruno Fernandes pushing higher up, it left McTominay and Fred overrun against Villa’s three man, with the visitors managing to control the majority of play after the break, amassing 57% possession overall.
It’s a problem that seemingly has only one solution: sign a robust holding midfielder. United have been linked with several in the January transfer window, and identifying one who can come in and immediately solve the Red Devils’ undeniable problems in the engine room could be a season-defining purchase.
Manchester City have Rodri, Liverpool have Fabinho, while Chelsea have the best of the lot in N’Golo Kante. At Arsenal there’s Thomas Partey, or Wilfred Ndidi at Leicester City, West Ham United’s Declan Rice, and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg at Tottenham Hotspur.
Every side near the top has an enforcer, someone who can break up the play, but United’s lack of one is costing them dearly this term.
Story of the game
Despite United’s average display at Old Trafford, they did start the game on the frontfoot, nicking a goal after eight minutes when Scott McTominay nodded in Fred’s inch-perfect cross.
United could have extended that lead had Edinson Cavani or Marcus Rashford converted good first-half opportunities, while McTominay and Luke Shaw tested Emiliano Martinez from distance.
But Villa might have netted themselves, with John McGinn forcing David De Gea into a save, while Ollie Watkins smashed an effort off the crossbar following a quick counter-attack.
Yet the game’s big talking point came in the second half, as Villa had an equaliser ruled out after a lengthy VAR stop. No-one really seemed sure why Danny Ings’s goal was disallowed originally, but it was later confirmed a perceived foul from an offside Jacob Ramsey in the build-up resulted in the goal being chalked off.
Then, somewhat less controversially, Watkins saw a goal disallowed soon after with Ings offside from a pass earlier in the phase of play.
For all Villa’s pressure, they failed to create sufficient clear-cut chances apart from the disallowed goals. This was partly down to an impressive showing from Raphael Varane, while United also improved in the final 10 minutes.
They retained possession more successfully after Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Elanaga came on, and killed Villa’s momentum.
The full-time whistle sounded soon after, to ensure Steve Gerrard didn’t enjoy his return to Old Trafford, while United move on to a fourth-round tie against Middlesbrough.