Rebuilding Man Utd’s Midfield: Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

by | Feb 26, 2024

For my first scouting exercise of 2024, I decided to go in a different direction from the usual method. My scouting articles from last year included DM, DLP and CB

This time, I’m going to tackle Manchester United’s midfield rebuild as a whole and cover the following in a step-by-step manner:
1) Analyze what encompasses a good midfield in terms of tasks and duties
2) Figure out what Manchester United already have in terms of profiles
3) Identify gaps to build required profiles
4) Use data to create shortlists to uncover targets based on above logic
5) Go through some mini scout reports of the best and most realistic targets 

As you can see, this already sounds like a long read, which is why I’m going to be dividing this exercise into 3 parts. In this part, we will focus on what we have in our midfield and what we need.

The tasks and duties of a midfield

While there are a million things a player playing in midfield might be tasked with doing, I’ve tried to divide the universe of midfield duties into 6 broad tasks which encompass the numerous duties associated with it. Here they are:

3 possession and 3 defending tasks have been split as per the areas/phases in which they occur. Let me give a bit more explanation of each.

P1: 1st phase progression – Basically duties that help the team go from their defensive third to the middle third safely. These include receiving back-to-goal from GK or defenders, being able to retain the ball under pressure, being able to circulate possession safely and handling large volumes of passes consistently. Highest safety task.

P2: 2nd phase progression – Duties that help the team advance from the middle third of the pitch to the attacking third. These involve being progressive while being safe, being able to play switches, line-breaking passes or long balls that help the team enter the opposition territory and having vertical passing/carrying power to break lines. An even mix of safety and risk-taking.

P3: 3rd phase progression – Duties that help the team create or score. These include playing killer balls, finding attackers in high xG locations, having game-breaking ability to unlock defences, having good off-the-ball movement to get into dangerous areas and having shooting ability to score. Most risk-taking task.

D1: Deep defending – Out of possession, this task coincides with the deepest midfielder who has duties that can range from shielding the back 4 or joining the defence line, forming the rest defence i.e. defending transitions when his team loses the ball, being positionally sound to intercept, block and recover dangerous opponent passes and having the strength and defending technique to stop dangerous dribblers and off-ball movers when 1v1 with them.

D2: Middle defending – Ideally the second deepest midfielder out of possession who has duties that include large space-covering ability to be able to run, press, tackle and recover the ball consistently, being able to provide extra defensive security to the deepest midfielder and coming out on top of duels in the middle of the park.

D3: High defending – Out of possession, this relates to the midfielder who joins the high press, has a good sense of how to disrupt the opposition’s build up and progression, has the tenacity to press, chase and man-mark key opponent players and the ability to lead his team’s counter-press strategy.

You’ll notice that I’m defining tasks instead of profiles. This is because of the numerous ways in which profiles can fit together. You can have various combinations of these 6 tasks fitting together in a midfield to make it work. If it’s a 4-2-3-1, the base midfielders might have more tasks deeper while the AM might dominate most of the P3 and D3 duties. If it’s a 4-3-3 the DM might dominate most P1 and D1 duties. But there could also be cases where build up duties are split or transition defence duties are shared. For these combinations to exist, I’ve preferred to think in terms of tasks rather than profiles. The profiles get created based on how good players are at these tasks.

Taking stock of Manchester United’s midfield

So, how does all of this apply to us? Let’s get into that.

But firstly, let me simply put down all the midfield options at the club currently with their respective ages and contract end dates.

While this looks like a large group of midfielders, the ones we can count on to remain at the club for the near future are actually very few.

Casemiro and Eriksen are now 32. The struggles for both in terms of physicality, fitness and intensity in games has been clear for a year. In general, moving them on to reinvest in younger players makes sense. I’m assuming they’re not here beyond the summer or at most a year. Not counting both.

Amrabat hasn’t really set the stage on fire in his loan spell. In general, this feels like one of those loan deals that ten Hag simply likes to make to have injury cover and won’t really sign on (like Weghorst and Reguilon). Not counting him.

Donny van de Beek has not seen regular United first-team activity in many years. There’s a good chance the club will hope his loan deal converts to a permanent move. In case it doesn’t,  we can assume he’ll be sold or sent on loan again until his contract expires. Not counting him.

Mejbri and Gore are a little more tricky. There’s a good argument they can come back and stake claim for a spot in midfield especially, as a backup. Mejbri even got some first-team involvement. I’m not sure if either makes it here under ten hag or a new manager. For now. I’m not including them in the main calculations. If they do make it back, they can be extra cover beyond the first-team midfield that we plan for. 

Essentially that leaves us with Bruno, Scott, Mount and Mainoo as midfielders we can count on for the next 2-3 years. Mount and Mainoo are simple to explain – they’re young and have just started their United careers. They should be around for a while. Although Bruno is 29, I don’t think the time to move on from him is near. He’s at his peak and nothing about his physical or technical abilities have taken a hit. Building around him is sensible for 2-3 years. After that, he can be replaced if needed. Scott probably invites most discourse. I would have got why he was sold to West Ham last year if that move panned out. But over the course of this season, he has shown his value. He is an academy player with certain reliable traits that are unique and impactful when used well. I would keep him around for at least 2 years until the major gaps are sorted and then look to upgrade him.

Analyzing the midfield by tasks

With that in mind, I’m going to divide the 4 midfielders we have into the aforementioned tasks. Let’s look at it.

First, some notes on the scoring. I have taken a 5-point scale from ‘4’ to ‘0’ with 4 referring to a player who is highly capable at the mentioned task and 0 referring to incapable. These aren’t absolute ability scores. All 4 midfielders scoring 12 doesn’t mean they are equal in ability. It’s just a notation to indicate what they’re good and bad at. For example, Scott scoring 4 for D2 doesn’t mean there are no midfielders who are better at D2 than Scott. It simply means within his skillset, Scott is best doing D2 compared to D1 and D3. So, please read the chart as task capability within a player’s skill set and not as a comparison to all midfielders. 

A few notes on each player’s scores.

Bruno Fernandes: Probably the simplest one to divide. Bruno is worse as he goes deeper, both in and out of possession and best as he goes higher up the pitch. He gets a straight 0-2-4 split in both categories. He’s best in the final third whether it’s creating, scoring or leading the high press. He is fairly capable in the middle third with his passing range to enter final 3rd or ball-winning intensity. He’s highly incapable in the deepest third whether it’s build up or transition defending.

Kobbie Mainoo: Another easy one to analyze. In possession, Mainoo is remarkable in the deepest third thanks to his press-resistance, carrying and composed circulation ability, decent in the middle third when tasked to progress and probably not a final 3rd player. Out of possession is almost similar, but I wouldn’t say that he isn’t the best at defending deepest due to his small physical frame and tendency to get dribbled past when 1v1. I also think he’s shown decent high pressing ability in recent games when he was the highest deployed midfielder.

Mason Mount: Contrary to popular perception, I do not think Mount is a Bruno copy or that their skill sets overlap highly making them tough to play together. I don’t think Mount is as effective in the final 3rd as Bruno, but I think he’s very underrated in 2nd phase progression and has shown that in games this year. Out of possession, I’d say they are similar in that both are great high pressers and decent middle third defenders.

Scott McTominay: I’m sure this will be debatable, but hear me out. In-possession, I think Scott is decent in all 3 phases but really shines higher up the pitch. While he doesn’t have the creativity or passing technique of Bruno, his game-breaking ability in terms of being a good target man, having great ball-striking ability and possessing an underrated hold-up trait make him a very useful final 3rd player as shown many times this season. Out of possession, he’s excellent at the middle 3rd defensive aspects of duel-winning, space coverage and second-ball pick ups. I’d rate him much lower for deep defending and high pressing due to his poor positioning and awareness.

Now, look at the totals. What we are left with are huge gaps in the deeper third tasks in and out of possession. Which makes sense since the DMs for our current season, Casemiro and Amrabat, aren’t included in the assessment. We’re well covered in other tasks.

The midfield profiles that United need

If we assume an ideal midfield of 6 players for 3 slots, then we need two more players to complete the above set. The best fitment would be if they could cover the task gaps adequately enough to result in a wholesome midfield set of 6 befitting a treble-aiming club.

Here’s what we get.

Simply entering the numbers to create a wholesome total of 12 across the board vertically and horizontally results in the profiles of 2 new players that I feel United should buy to complete their set.

The common denominator for both comes out of possession. Both score a 4-1-1 in defence which hints at both needing to be extremely capable deep defenders to stop transitions, shield the back 4 and be positionally solid. That’s the reason I’ve called both positions DM since without the ball they will be the deepest player in midfield. It makes sense too considering them as replacements for Casemiro and Amrabat.

In possession is where the differences arise. The first player needs to be extremely adept at first phase progression aka build up so I’ve named him the Build up DM. This is the player who will most likely play exclusively as the deepest player in and out of possession. You can think of him as the #6 with two #8s ahead of him or the deeper member of a pivot. 

The second player can have distributed tasks in possession and reads like an all-phase player. This represents a player who has the defensive ability to sit like a #6 if needed but can also play as the #8 beside a #6 and contribute in advanced phases of progression. As a result I’ve named him as the Hybrid DM. 

So there you have it. These are the 2 profiles of players I feel United should target to have a well-rounded high-impact midfield for the next 2 years.

Finding our targets – A preview

Before I wrap up part 1 of this series, I’d like to explain how I’m going to go about finding these players so that you have something to look forward to for part 2 and 3.

We already know the tasks to look for and the duties associated with them. That leads us to looking at the stats that indicate the successful execution of such duties. So, the next step will be stats-led where I’ll use data to crunch numbers for the 6 tasks I defined above and then create a shortlist using weighted formulas for the Build up DM and Hybrid DM.

The stats I’ve used for each task:
P1: Pass %, Passes Attempted, Miscontrols

P2: Progressive passes, Progressive carries, Dispossessed

P3: Key passes, Shot-creating actions, Shots

D1: Dribblers tackled, Dribblers tackled %

D2: Tackles, interceptions

D3: Attacking third tackles

All the data for midfielders from Europe’s top 7 leagues was downloaded from fbref and the stats were converted to per touch or possession-adjusted versions to eliminate big team bias. Each task percentile was created by weighting the above mentioned individual stat percentiles. Two formulas for Build up DM and Hybrid DM were created using the weightages for the tasks that we mentioned before. Finally a league coefficient weighting was used to boost performances in tougher leagues among the top 7 leagues.

Here’s a preview of how it’s coming out.

In the next 2 articles, I will create shortists for both profiles and then cover some mini scout reports that make most sense for Manchester United.

Watch out for the upcoming pieces in this series.

Part 2: Man Utd Midfield Rebuild: Part 2 – Build up DM Targets

Part 3: Man Utd Midfield Rebuild Part 3 – Hybrid DM Targets

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