Midfield Minefield - Who should partner McTominay in Pogba's absence?

Photo Credit: sundaypost.com

Scott McTominay's career has been on a steady upwards trajectory ever since Jose Mourinho named the relatively unknown, gangly young midfielder as a substitute in a Premier League match against Swansea back in April 2017. It was hard to tell from his first few appearances whether he was destined for regular first team football, although Mourinho insisted that he had all the tools and was almost certain to reach the top. Mourinho's detractors suggested that McTominay was promoted beyond his ability simply to fend off the suggestion that the manager didn't trust young players, which was a massive disservice to a young man who'd been with Manchester United since he was five years old and who had displayed tremendous mental fortitude by retraining as a midfielder after a lengthy growth spurt derailed his original career path as a striker.

Almost two and a half years have passed since his debut and now he's the first name on the teamsheet, although he's not yet the finished product. He may be on the way to becoming the kind of all action box to box midfield general who can dominate the opposition on his own, like a Keane or a Robson, but he's not there yet, so he needs someone beside him to share the load. Paul Pogba has been perfect for McTominay's development because the spotlight is magnetically drawn towards the French World Cup winner, leaving much needed breathing space in which the young Anglo-Scot can flourish. Unfortunately, Pogba has been struggling this season with a persistent injury that could see him out of action for another few weeks, while the obvious lack of creativity going forward may force Solskjaer to utilise him in an advanced role when he does make it back to full fitness. If it does turn out to be the case that Pogba won't be able to partner McTominay in the centre for an extended period, who is best placed to fulfil that role? Let's examine the options:

Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos (Fred)

It's fair to say that Manchester United have had mixed fortunes when adding Brazilians to the squad, between the good (Rafael da Silva, Anderson), the bad (Kleberson, Rodrigo Possebon) and the average (Fabio da Silva, Andreas Pereira), so there was some uncertainty amongst the fans when it was announced that Fred would be joining from Shakhtar Donetsk for £52 million in July of last year. I have to confess that before he signed for United I knew next to nothing about him, so I was unaware of where his strengths lay or how he would fit into this United team. 15 months on and I'm still none the wiser. He's one of those players who you forget is actually on the pitch, despite him occupying a central role. It's reached a point where I'm now fully convinced that his special skill is invisibility. Maybe it's the climate, maybe he's homesick, or maybe he's just not good enough. Whatever it is, I don't see Fred as the ideal candidate to pair with McTominay for anything other than EFL cup and Europa League group stage games.

Nemanja Matic

When Matic first signed for United we all got excited. We'd seen his performances for Chelsea as the perfect defence-screening holding midfielder who allowed the creative players to operate with impunity, so we imagined how much better Pogba would be now that he would be released from any defensive duties. Somehow it didn't quite work out, and now, two years later, Matic is operating in the same area of the pitch but at a markedly slower pace. This lack of pace prevents his midfield partner from going forward and supporting the attacking play because someone now has to cover the opposition runners from midfield. That someone would be McTominay, which makes me certain that Matic is not the partner he needs.

Axel Tuanzebe

I know what you're thinking "Axel isn't a midfielder, why would you even suggest this?", well, Phil Neville wasn't a midfielder either, until he was. Some players can't nail down a fixed position and make great options as cover, while others are born with so much natural ability that they could play at a high level in a number of positions, and I believe that Tuanzebe is one such player. It isn't just my opinion either, as evidenced by the fact that Jose Mourinho played Tuanzebe as a DM in a few Premier League games at the back end of the 2016/17 season. Who knows, if he hadn't have gone out on loan to Aston Villa maybe he would've been given more game time in midfield? It doesn't look like Solskjaer will move him out of defence, but if it did happen I'm sure that an unflappable Tuanzebe would make a fine foil to the bustling McTominay.

James Garner

Good things are expected of Garner, who started out as a defender before migrating into the defensive midfield position he occupies today. Seen as a natural leader with an unerring eye for goal, all available evidence suggests that Garner has the attributes and attitude to make it at United. Because of this I believe that Garner would make the perfect midfield partner to McTominay, although my only reservation would be his lack of first team action. In an ideal world he'd be sent out on loan for a year to experience first team football out of the glare of the Old Trafford spotlight, however, squad depth and injuries mean that he's required to be available for the first team, albeit only in the EFL cup against Rochdale and as an unused substitute against Astana in the Europa League so far this season.

Conclusion

Every scenario I've painted above comes with inherent risks, so I can't say for sure which is the best option in the absence of Paul Pogba, although if it was up to me I'd be looking at Garner to make the step up. Yes, he's still young and has a lot to learn, but as Sir Matt Busby famously said: If you're good enough, you're old enough. 

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