Erik ten Hag has a lot of work to do when he starts coaching his new Manchester United side next week, but getting the right midfielder may be most important.
The Dutchman is aiming to bring a possession-based brand of attacking football to Old Trafford and his success will depend on his ability to find the balance in the middle of the park. To do that, signings will be a necessity with Ten Hag aiming to bring in both Frenkie de Jong and Christian Eriksen.
Barcelona are looking to cash in on De Jong so they can fund another aging megastar craze and Ten Hag has sounded out the player, who he enjoyed great success with at Ajax, for a meeting at United. Eriksen, meanwhile, will be available on a free transfer when his short-term contract at Brentford expires next week. The Dane made a remarkable return to action in January after suffering cardiac arrest on the pitch while representing his country at Euro 2020.
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If United were successful in securing both deals, he would have taken an important step by adding the technique and ingenuity they sorely lack, although they would still be without the defensive midfielder they were supposed to prioritise. Eriksen and De Jong would join Fred, Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes, Donny van de Beek and James Garner in United’s midfield ranks, but with so many options, what would Ten’s first-choice midfield trio be? Hag? Our writers have had their say.
There is an admirable audacity in Ten Hag who covets De Jong, one of the most gifted midfielders around, although parachuting him into United’s worst team in decades and the most intense league is a risk without a full-fledged defensive midfielder and United don’t. have one of those.
De Jong has been playing for culturally aligned clubs and national teams since Ajax titans Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels transformed Barcelona nearly 50 years ago. United don’t have so much of an identity crisis as their identity (top two, conventional wingers, chasing plays) is outdated. One of the few guarantees with Ten Hag is that he has to establish an identity, hence the desire to recruit De Jong.
Ten Hag is trying to modernize United after trying to come back under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, all counterattacks and no control. Ironically, Solskjaer touched Eriksen three years ago and he swept United away. He has done little since to justify Ten Hag’s interest and you have to be a special player to come back to England from Serie A and play in the upper echelons (eg Cristiano Ronaldo).
Eriksen had a wonderful three months at Brentford and it’s fabulous that he was able to resume his career after those numbing scenes in Copenhagen a year ago. You can imagine United’s social media accounts replaying the applause he received when he took turns at Old Trafford last month and also filming a welcome hug from Brandon Williams. Eriksen, despite being in Spurs’ best team for the past 30 years, is unlikely to be instrumental in United’s rebuild. Juan Mata is four years older and Eriksen may be more alert, but there’s not much to separate them and Eriksen lasted six years in the Premier League.
There is merit in a manager signing a player they know well, but Ten Hag is already at risk of pushing him to the limit. Eriksen trained with Ajax at the start of the year as he regained his fitness. Activating him in the Eredivisie and a promoted club is a different level from United, the most scrutinized sporting institution on the planet. It would be more valuable as a rotation option.
Starting from Ten Hag’s interest in De Jong and Eriksen, the renewal of Bruno Fernandes’ contract – confirmed weeks before the announcement of Ten Hag’s appointment – already seems as unnecessary as it is undeserved. Fernandes turns 28 in September and controlling football is not his style. Shaking him might convince him to stop complaining and start controlling.
Sections of the fanbase will write Fred off but he shouldn’t be hastily dropped from the starting XI, provided United have the staff to accommodate him. Ultimately, it would be negligent of United to end the window without a defensive-minded midfielder. De Jong would need it as much as the defense.
Over the past two seasons it seemed like United were in desperate need of a defensive midfielder, but part of the reason for that was that they were continually exposed to the counterattack due to a lack of quality and care in possession. It was a badly structured team that made bad choices.
The fact that Ten Hag is targeting De Jong suggests he sees lack of control as more important than the need for an elite midfielder and if United are to be a possession-based side they need to improve passes to central midfield. Eriksen also fits this bill.
De Jong played alongside Lasse Schone at Ajax, another midfielder who isn’t exactly a starting player, and it looks like a similar approach could be used at United, pairing De Jong with Fred. The Dutchman can pick up the ball deep and help United progress down the pitch, while Fred has the energy to press down and cover the ground.
This leaves a role for a more creative player. Van de Beek feels like a team player at best and that would basically be between Eriksen and Fernandes. Ten Hag’s desire for possession in the summer could make Eriksen a better candidate for the role, given Fernandes is loose with the ball due to his high-risk approach.
It would be brave for a new manager to come in and drop Fernandes, but Eriksen’s overall quality might just give him the edge in that midfield three.
While De Jong and Eriksen would make great additions, neither would solve the team’s biggest problem: United desperately need a defensive midfielder. The midfield will remain unbalanced without a specialist to protect the back line.
Rodri plays this role for Manchester City and Fabinho does it for Liverpool – both teams’ midfielders would be far worse off without these players. United must sign their own defensive midfielder if they want to fight for the trophies again.
Bruno Fernandes and De Jong are expected to start in midfield three but that means Eriksen would be substituted which he might not accept. A midfield three of Fernandes, De Jong and Eriksen would be unbalanced and leave United vulnerable.
The space United desperately gave the opposition last season is set to be cleared through coaching and some overdue tactical cohesion, however, it will be a joke if they don’t sign a defensive midfielder this summer as this remains their problematic position.