In a July 2019 press conference while Manchester United were on a pre-season tour in a far-flung destination (remember them?), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked a pertinent question.
How were United going to replace Ander Herrera? The midfielder had been a key pillar of their engine room and his departure from him — under a cloud, of sorts — on a free had caused plenty of concern for fans. The complaint from many was that United’s midfield felt light on options and that a signing was needed.
Despite being in the midst of their own self-styled cultural reset that would involve signing “young, hungry homegrown players” — in the words of Ed Woodward — United saw the midfield situation differently to most, and Solskjaer’s answer was revealing.
He replied: “Andy (Pereira) I expect a lot more from, Scotty (McTominay) I expect a lot more from. Those two between them had maybe 15, 20 starts last season. You expect them to have at least 20 each this season, maybe even more.
“That’s maybe two players into one that can replace Ander.”
Ralf Rangnick is well and truly into his role as Manchester United interim manager, trying to turn the club’s season around after a dismal few months.
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Some might say Solskjaer was proven half-right; others might claim he was completely wrong. It depends how you rate Scott McTominay’s development in the United midfield over the past two-and-a-half years.
Either way, it was as foolish for United to head into the 2019/20 season without a midfield signing as it was not to replace Romelu Lukaku, who left later in the summer. That Sean Longstaff was among their principle targets for the role was equally foolish.
As a result United went into the campaign with a squad that had gaping holes in it.
Once Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial had gone down with injuries by early October, Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata and Daniel James were all forced to become regular starters under Solskjaer. It was no surprise that United won just two league games between September 14 and December 4, against Norwich and Brighton.
United’s league position that winter reflected their threadbare options. And although Bruno Fernandes’ arrival in January 2020 signaled the start of the revival under Solskjaer — with more signings following, to bulk up the squad — the Herrera problem was never truly addressed.
Pereira was never going to be a direct replacement for Herrera. He started 18 league games that season, though only a handful of times in a deep midfield position — and when he did, it was a disaster. Fernandes’ arrival signaled the beginning of the end for the Brazilian.
Fred wasn’t name-checked in July 2019 by Solskjaer and, although he stepped up to a degree under the Norwegian, the fact he and McTominay are still the de facto midfield pairing for United in February 2022 speaks volumes. Fernandes and Donny van de Beek arrived under Solskjaer in attacking midfield, two centre-backs were signed, two full-backs, multiple forwards (Ronaldo, Sancho, Cavani, Amad, Pellistri et al), but no central midfielders.
The fault isn’t completely on Solskjaer, of course.
Woodward and the Glazers sanction transfers and nowadays John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and the recruitment team are tasked with identifying targets, then Matt Judge negotiates the deals. It speaks volumes that United highlighted Declan Rice way back in 2019 — a proper Herrera replacement — but failed to recruit him. If they want him now, in 2022, he’ll cost more than £100million.
Signing defensive midfielders isn’t particularly sexy but it’s an issue that continues to hold back United, as it has done for nearly three years.
The Glazers might have to shell out big-time this summer to correct their mistake.
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