Manchester United’s central midfield has a miserable lack of creativity, with the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay under fire… but are their top-six rivals suffering from the same problem?
- Manchester United’s failure to break down compact teams has been criticised
- Gary Neville claimed only Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are capable of it
- Fred and Scott McTominay have been savaged for poor attacking contributions
- The likes of Manchester City and Leicester are blessed with creative options
- Here, Sportsmail runs the rule over the current top six and their midfielders
Manchester United have been found guilty far too often this season of struggling to break down compact teams, prompting Gary Neville to insist his former club ‘need fantastic players’ like leaders City.
The problems stem from the heart of midfield at Old Trafford. It may even stretch all the way back to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. The sight of United probing from side to side, with a painful lack of incision, has left some supporters numb.
There was, admittedly, a slight improvement in the tight win over West Ham in their most recent Premier League game. David Moyes, returning to his old stomping ground, set out his team to play with a low block, and United were left to hammer away at the wall.
Gary Neville has openly questioned the creativity of Manchester United’s midfielders, including Scott McTominay (above), amid a dismal lack of creativity, goals and assists
Fred has come under fire for a failure to create, or score, many goals since joining for a big fee
Scott McTominay was heavily involved in the only goal of the game, having challenged Craig Dawson in the air for his unfortunate error, but failed to inspire alongside usual midfield partner Fred.
Paul Pogba is a notable absentee, however, and Bruno Fernandes has single-handedly changed the direction of the club since his arrival. These are the two names hard to criticise, with United an inferior team without them.
The other players available to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in that area of the field often reek of a lack of creativity, however, and are a stark contrast to their leading men.
Neville has pointed out United’s woes with breaking down teams that sit deep in recent weeks
‘You know how Man United are, they struggle to break down teams,’ Neville said. ‘They’ve got to be better against teams in those deep blocks with 10 men behind the ball. That’s where the next stage is.’
There can be no doubting the effort and energy of Fred when United are defending or pressing high, but his inability to hit the target continues to frustrate.
He has mustered 78 Premier League shots in total. How many goals, you ask? Just one.
This season, his 21 attempts have resulted in only five testing the opposition goalkeeper. They often balloon horribly into the stand, and Solskjaer was even seen having a laugh at one particular effort against Chelsea.
Fred has attempted a total of 78 shots in the Premier League but has scored just one of them
As for McTominay, his tally of four goals and one assist this term points towards a player who was a striker in his youth days.
His finishing ability is impressive, but, just like Fred, his failure to unlock defences is laid bare most weeks.
They are reliable performers and the trustiest of servants in the big games – but no more than that.
For a United team often blessed with swagger and direction at its heart, the two are a solid, albeit underwhelming, combination in a sea of top-flight wealth.
The likes of Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek have had to settle for bit-part roles, meanwhile.
This group can boast just three assists between them, and a single goal, this campaign.
Donny van de Beek has endured a frustrating first season at Old Trafford and is now out injured
Neville was correct to glance across to the other half of Manchester when looking at how United can improve.
‘Man City have five or six players. If two are injured, someone else can unlock the door,’ he told Sky Sports. It’s difficult to disagree.
The soon-to-be champions are relentless scorers under Pep Guardiola – and have recovered from their rough patch last year to plunder more than ever.
Kevin De Bruyne has five goals and 11 assists in the top-flight at this point. His tally will only increase as the weeks pass and City’s grip tightens on the trophy.
Ilkay Gundogan’s remarkable purple patch of goals has coincided with City rising to top spot
Behind him, in his absence, a host of other City players have stepped up to the plate.
Ilkay Gundogan has surprised many with his exploits, and his 12 goals for the season have seen him become an integral player at the Etihad.
Youngster Phil Foden, lauded by many and held in the highest esteem by his manager, has netted six goals and recorded five assists.
The list goes on. While United depend heavily on the brilliance of Fernandes and (less regularly) Pogba in the middle, City are blessed with an assortment of riches there.
They are all versatile, fluid and look confident when bearing down on the opposition box.
Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne have dictated play behind the striker for an in-form City outfit
Their march from the doldrums and to the top of the table has made their creative ranks the most feared in the land – although Leicester may hope to run them close.
Brendan Rodgers’ high-flyers have scored 53 goals this term and delivered another five-star performance against basement club Sheffield United in their most recent Premier League game.
Jamie Vardy, of course, is the talisman at the centre of all the team’s success, but his intelligent sprints in behind still have to be picked out by team-mates.
The likes of Youri Tielemans, Harvey Barnes and James Maddison are all capable of dropping in inch-perfect passes – and chipping in with goals themselves, too.
Leicester duo Harvey Barnes and James Maddison have been key to Leicester’s top-four push
Belgium international Tielemans has six goals and three assists to his name and it is little surprise that several elite clubs in Europe are reportedly interested in him.
Barnes has netted nine goals and teed up a further four, while Maddison’s eight goals and seven assists have been key to Leicester’s renewed Champions League push.
Slightly below them, Chelsea sit in fourth spot – and have found goals notably harder to come by since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard.
Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic are consistent performers, but lack the cutting edge and imagination of the finest Premier League midfielders.
They have six goals between them, however, with all coming from penalty-taker Jorginho.
Jorginho boasts six goals for a Chelsea side struggling to create chances under Thomas Tuchel
Kai Havertz has found himself pushed forward into a No 9 role in recent weeks, meanwhile, after notably struggling to influence himself in games in a deeper role.
Despite scoring just once in the top-flight, the signs are there that the playmaker will eventually re-find the form that saw Chelsea swoop for him.
Fellow new arrival Hakim Ziyech has also endured a difficult first season in England – leaving the majority of the creative burden in the team on Mason Mount.
Having blossomed under former boss Lampard, the 22-year-old is enjoying a rich vein of form. He has scored five goals and fashioned four others.
Mason Mount is enjoying a fine season and will be key as Chelsea look to finish at least fourth
West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton are on the outskirts of the Champions League places but do remain in contention.
Despite their surprisingly limp display at Old Trafford, the Hammers have caught the eye this campaign – and owe much of their success to a handful of talented midfielders.
Tomas Soucek’s formidable aerial ability, and his welcome knack of keeping the ball under pressure, helps the team break from one end of the field to the other.
Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini have also impressed behind the frontman.
United loanee Jesse Lingard has starred since joining West Ham until the end of the campaign
It is arguably Jesse Lingard, who arrived on loan in January, that has injected the most impetus into Moyes’ ranks, though.
Tottenham and Liverpool’s midfields have pretty miserable creative returns in truth, which is perhaps not surprising for teams so reliant on Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in Spurs’ case, and the famous front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in Liverpool’s.
Sixth-placed Tottenham’s most creative midfielder in terms of assists is a defensive midfielder, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who has three – which is perhaps a damning indictment on those playing in front of him. Record signing Tanguy Ndombele has three goals but only one assist.
Tanguy Ndombele is still not scoring or creating enough for such a big-money signing
Fallen champions Liverpool, down in seventh place, have no midfielder with more than one assist. Star summer signing Thiago has neither a goal nor an assist to his name.
Meanwhile Georginio Wijnaldum, who is set to leave for Barcelona this summer, is their top midfield goalscorer with just two.
Liverpool’s lack of midfield creativity is summed up by Thiago’s lack of returns
Though Everton have been plagued by mixed form, the Merseyside outfit have also shown frequent flashes of brilliance.
James Rodriguez, with five goals and four assists to his name, has dazzled after reuniting with Carlo Ancelotti.
But the Colombia international has being playing through pain for ‘months’, he revealed, and Everton look far more ponderous on the ball without him.
Everton have looked notably more cumbersome in the absence of James Rodriguez this term
So, how do United compare up against the teams hoping to push them all the way to mid-May?
Pretty well, is the answer. They are blessed with players capable of unlocking the sturdiest of doors in Pogba and Fernandes, and have Mata and Van de Beek as options too.
It may be a lack of imagination, confidence, or even Solskjaer’s tactics that are holding Fred and McTominay from contributing more going forward.
There is no doubting that, for United’s objectives this season, they have good midfield resources.
The problem lies alongside Solskjaer’s evidently lofty ambitions. If they are to challenge for titles and trophies again, they must, as Neville alluded to, buy big.
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