If defeats for both Manchester clubs in UEFA’s two showpiece finals in the past week have taught us anything, it’s not to meddle with winning formulas. And not to undervalue your holding midfielder.
Just as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer moved away from the partnership between Fred and Scott McTominay that has been Manchester United’s foundation for two seasons, Pep Guardiola ditched his own defensive midfield mainstay for Man City against Chelsea with Fernandinho and Rodri both benched.
And so the teams placed first and second in Europe’s best league were toppled in finals by England’s fourth and Spain’s seventh-best sides.
The value of the deep-lying midfielder is not lost on football fans anymore, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Chelsea’s N’golo Kante boss the Champions League final in Porto and win Man Of The Match. The Frenchman is way beyond being described as an ‘unsung hero’ — although some media outlets did reach for that term on Saturday night — so Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola were foolish to scrap their own engine room scrappers.
Perhaps Solskjaer’s midfield selection against Villarreal was more understandable on the night, than Guardiola’s faux pas. He predicted Villarreal’s gameplan, to be fair, that the La Liga side would sit deep and ask United to break them down, so picked Paul Pogba to partner McTominay at the base of his midfield.
The issue United have always had with Pogba, especially under Solskjaer and his favoured 4-2-3-1, is that he doesn’t particularly fit into any role in the system. He’s not a true defensive midfielder, he’s not a No.10 of Bruno Fernandes’ ilk and while he’s enjoyed some impressive displays out wide, he’s not a winger either.
If Pogba does indeed depart United this summer — still very much a possibility amid interest from around Europe, and with one year on his contract — it’s always been accepted that the club must replace him with two players. One in a deeper role, and one more attacking.
Donny van de Beek was supposed to be the heir in waiting, though his debut campaign at Old Trafford has been a struggle.
The Dutchman has shone briefly in deeper roles, but you feel United need to add a true defensive midfield upgrade on Fred and McTominay (to accompany one of them), with Declan Rice seen as the ideal target.