The year began with a historic feat at Old Trafford. Just not by Manchester United. It started with an enviably good midfield double act. Just not theirs. As Wolves won away at United for the first time since 1980, it highlighted a difference between them. Rewind a few years and it seemed incongruous that Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves were Wolves’ duo in the centre. Now the Portuguese pairing are a regular sight and if Moutinho’s goal was a rarity – he is strictly a one-a-season man – and they are a low-scoring side, the twin playmakers can ooze quality when they stroke the ball around. They have an aesthetic appeal. A week later, United prevailed against another Midlands side, but the best central midfielder on the pitch was John McGinn.
Meanwhile, United had Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic. They were outmanoeuvred and outclassed by their Wolves counterparts; they paled by comparison with McGinn. Each game can tell a different story, and it is worth noting that three days before the Wolves defeat McTominay was outstanding in the defeat of Burnley, just as his usual sidekick Fred had been similarly good when he scored the first goal of the Ralf Rangnick era to defeat Crystal Palace. They are easy to mock and often underestimated, honest triers who, in previous seasons, were willing workers in some notable triumphs over teams with seemingly more talented midfields. Each has proved himself to be a manager’s player.
And yet it is tempting to wonder how many rival sides they would get into, assuming their counterparts were fit and available. Probably not the Wolves side, though Fred would offer more pressing and McTominay greater running power than the 35-year-old Moutinho. Neither is a passer of the same calibre, however, as Neves and Moutinho.
It almost goes without saying that neither would command a place for Manchester City, Chelsea or Liverpool, though Pep Guardiola considered buying Fred before United did and Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp may see McTominay’s selfless work ethic as a useful attribute in a squad player.
And if United’s objective should be to construct a midfield of the same standard the top three already have, they could come up short against some of their peers in the table now. Take this weekend’s visitors to Old Trafford: put McTominay and Fred in the West Ham squad and there is no chance of either displacing the magnificent Declan Rice. Perhaps one might edge out Tomas Soucek on his form this season, but not if the Czech reached the heights he did last year.
Arsenal? Thomas Partey has been inconsistent but his outstanding performance against City on New Year’s Day illustrated that he has a higher ceiling than either Fred or McTominay. Granit Xhaka’s self-destructive streak means his worst is worse than the United duo’s but as a passer he can knit the game together better than either.
Tottenham present a comparison of similar figures. Antonio Conte is currently preferring to unite two workhorses, in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp, benching Harry Winks and Tanguy Ndombele and emphasising graft over craft in a way United ought to recognise. Perhaps Hojbjerg and McTominay could dovetail in a hard-running duo, but they would look short of invention.
The centre of midfield can be an area of strength for Leicester with Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans, a lovely blend of a destructive and constructive presence. ‘McFred’ may instead end up on Brendan Rodgers’ bench. Even Everton, with Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure, might struggle to make McTominay or Fred first choices.
At least one should get in most other sides; indeed McTominay’s athleticism made him the scourge of Leeds last season, so Marcelo Bielsa probably would appreciate him, but each is inferior to Kalvin Phillips. Nor, indeed, should James Ward-Prowse have to worry for his place at Southampton, Conor Gallagher at Crystal Palace, McGinn at Aston Villa or Yves Bissouma for Brighton, were McTominay and Fred to suddenly appear in their squads.
It is another way of saying that, while they gone around accumulating superstar attackers, United have a mid-table midfield; admittedly, plus Paul Pogba, rarely trusted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to play in a deeper duo, and Donny van de Beek, rarely picked at all. ‘McFred’, and the ageing, immobile Matic, may be easy scapegoats but perhaps the greatest scope for improvement in the United team lies in the heart of side. Otherwise, they may have more games when the outstanding midfielder, whether a Neves, a McGinn or a Rice, is in the colours of their opponents.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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