Much of the discussion surrounding Manchester United at the moment revolves around one central tenet – the fact that they still have Fred & McTominay playing in midfield – rather than superman and wonder woman. It is true that United strengthened in several areas that they did not necessarily need to over the course of a busy summer window. It is also true that they neglected to strengthen the widest, gaping whole in their entire team. But Fred & McTominay have become scapegoats for the fragility of a fairly flimsy team that almost certainly would be worse off without them.
When it comes to football fandom, and even football analysis, this seems to be a common trend. We are constantly imagining a better future that simply doesn’t exist, while neglecting the present moment which – in actual fact isn’t all that bad. Let’s first take a look at the various central midfield pairings in the league and compare those to what Manchester United currently offer. Chelsea’s Kovacic and Jorginho are well above the pack, and N’Golo Kante slots into that pairing to what some would argue to be an even greater effect. Then you have Tielemans and Ndidi – who I have often argued would be a better pairing for United and the two they should be looking most closely at purchasing in the future. Soucek and Rice are also probably a cut above the United duo, and at the very least would help solve the Red Devils’ issue of being dramatically poor at defending set-pieces. But beyond that, there really isn’t much better when it comes to double pivots in the league. Simply taking them of the side would not guarantee a lift in form, and would disrupt years worth of chemistry and harmony that have been built up between themselves and those around them.Embed from Getty Images
Fred and McTominay, from having played together now for a few years under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have a solid understanding of where to be to accommodate the other, and how to play to the strengths of those further forward. This is a really underrated aspect to success, and one that often becomes neglected in the quest to buy the galacticos of the world. Then you have the dilemma that even if Tielemans and Ndidi or Rice and Soucek were purchased by United and slotted in straight away, you cannot say with absolute certainty that they would perform any better than Fred and McTominay. The other two pairings mentioned perform admirably for their current teams, but that’s not to say they would be able to reach the same heights for a club like United. Look at some failed central midfielders over the years like Morgan Schneiderlin or Marouane Fellaini, who came in from smaller sides under the assumption that they would provide something missing for the Red Devils. They never did. Digging deeper into a few of those players, Tomas Soucek’s incredible aerial presence wouldn’t be used to the same extent by United, and he could easily become a Fellaini-esque laughing stock. Tielemans’ incisive passes in behind wouldn’t be met with the same force and vigour by a striker who likes to play with his back to goal in Ronaldo, as it would for the always energetic Jamie Vardy. When you talk about just replacing one of the two and not the other, the same issues could easily arise. While there are evidently better options that exist, most already play for clubs competing with United for trophies. But fans and analysts alike have focused on the fact that better options exist, without considering the two men doing the job are actually solid options that also exist. Instead, Fred & McTominay have become scapegoats in United’s slight drop in form since Ronaldo’s arrival. It’s a hyperbolic assumption, within a hyperbolic situation that sees the Red Devils only two points off the top of the table.
why do clubs neglect what they already have?Embed from Getty Images
When it comes to neglecting what already exists at a club in place of what the club could have instead, the issue goes beyond just the footballing fanbase. Club owners, managers and those in charge of transfers all have the same trigger-happy thumb.
Take Chelsea for example in their recent signing of Saul Niguez. While only the smallest handful of teams in the world have a better midfield unit than Chelsea (perhaps only Bayern and Real…and even that’s stretching it), the Blues still went into the market for another one of the world’s best in Atletico’s long-standing performer Saul Niguez. They did this, perhaps under the false comparison, that the Spaniard would be able to bring the same amount of solidity to their high-functioning midfield as their current high-functioning options. On the other hand, they’ve continuously loaned out other (younger) options like Conor Gallagher and Ruben Loftus-Cheek who have continuously performed admirably for their loan-spell clubs. They did this, perhaps under the false comparison, that those two players would not be able to play to the same level as Kovacic, Jorginho and Kante. While Saul hasn’t really been given a sniff this season and was hauled off at halftime in his debut, Gallagher has been Palace’s best player so far, flourishing in a midfield three under Patrick Vieira. So if Chelsea wanted a fourth midfield option who could perform closer to the level of the men they already had, perhaps they could have looked at their own ranks, rather than spend 50 odd million abroad. All of this is to say that the footballing fandom (and beyond when it comes to humans in general) often neglect to focus on what they already have, in place of what they could have instead. The problem with this, as you probably know yourself, is that we are very bad at imagining are futures, and accurately predicting what the future might hold. Watford seem to be the worst at this, constantly in a state of managerial sackings one after the other. The first manager to be sacked in this horrific run of managerial sackings was Sean Dyche – the man who has since become one of Burnley’s most successful managers ever. The last manager to be sacked in this horrific run happens to be Xisco Munoz – the man with the best record out of all of them, who had the club in a steady position with a fine enough tally of 7 points from 7 matches this season. While it’s not the standards you would expect of a United or a Chelsea, it certainly, perhaps almost overwhelmingly, exceeds the standards Watford should have for themselves. Yet despite that, the Hornets sacked Xisco, as they did prematurely to the fourteen managers in ten years before him. We can only conclude that the backroom staff must live in a fake crystal ball, in which they only see a future that doesn’t exist, and neglect the actual present situation.
It’s the same when it comes to the fan reaction of Manchester United’s midfield men. While Fred is not the best in transition and can be susceptible to errors, he is one of the most active midfield engines in the league. He’s consistently toward the top when it comes to pressures applied and successful pressures in the league, and his tackling numbers are also right up their with the best. McTominay may not excel at any one specific area of the game, but he’s a great all-rounder who has excellent awareness of space, can pull off a precision pass now and then, and sincerely helps to provide a different kind of defensive solidity than the likes of Paul Pogba and Donny Van de Beek genuinely would.Embed from Getty Images
If Manchester United are to challenge for a league title, having two central midfielders of the quality of Liverpool’s Fabinho and Henderson or Chelsea’s Kovacic and Jorginho may very well be the first stepping stone. But very few players like that actually exist. Most of them already play for top clubs, and it’s a serious once in a blue moon that you can uncover the next N’Golo Kante without that player already having made a jump to an elite club. So Manchester United fans and the likes should be more kind to what they currently have – which is genuinely one of the best midfield duos in the league, and by no means at fault for the team’s recent slump in form. If the Red Devils can instead focus on their organization when defending set-pieces and quick counter attacks, they will be a far better team. On the other hand, if they replace two players that are performing well for them, with two others that might not perform that much better, they won’t necessarily be a better team.
So there it is! Why Fred and McTominay are criminally underrated, and why we shouldn’t neglect what we currently have in thinking about all that we could maybe one day have in the future. If this resonated with you be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, Premier League articles, Sport Psychology, and more. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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