In the post Ferguson era, Manchester United had not have many great nights in the grandest stage of them all, the UEFA Champions League. Then they got “that night in Paris”. That was about it. And then they did it again in Paris one and a half year later. The most obvious common factor in both of those nights was a late winner from the brilliant Marcus Rashford. However, there was one other common denominator for both. A midfield partnership of Fred and McTominay. So is this the most balanced midfield United can provide, especially in big matches?
When the starting XI was announced before the Newcastle game on the last weekend, a lot of eyebrows were raised. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a bold call and relegated Paul Pogba to the bench. And surprisingly enough, summer signing Donny Van De Beek also didn’t make the starting lineup. Instead Ole went with a midfield duo of Fred and McTominay. Perhaps he was resting key players for the PSG game midweek. It was actually a dress rehearsal for the duo, foreshadowing what was to come against PSG.
Manchester United had a tough start to life this season. Defensive vulnerability was the main concern after shipping in 6 goals against Spurs. But it wasn’t just that. United conceded 5 goals in the first 2 matches against Palace and Brighton. The alarm bells were already ringing. It made a lot of sense from the manager’s point of view to add some steel in the midfield in exchange of flair and natural ability. And it worked. It worked against the finalists of last season’s UCL big time.
Fred and McTominay are never going to match Pogba or Van De Beek in terms of footballing abilities, not even on their best days. But what they offer is something very different, something the other two cannot. Fred has always performed very well in the European stages. He is often a key factor in many a big matches. Scott McTominay is also not that far off that list. One can be assured of the duo covering every inch of grass. Their work rate is phenomenal. And more often than not, they simply outwork opposition players. And that makes a telling difference.
Against PSG, Fred and McTominay ranked 1st and 3rd in terms of distance covered. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Scott even picked up an early booking. But they still impressed. In terms of covering for out of position teammates or making tackles, interceptions to dispossess the opposition players, they were brilliant. Tuanzebe and Wan-Bissaka took most of the applause for the defensive organization and stability. But make no mistake about it, everyone in and around them also contributed immensely to make that happen.
An obvious question that will be raised after this is if they are the midfield duo United should play. And in terms of pure statistics, the answer would be yes. Ever since Solskjaer has been made manager, Fred and McTominay has started 29 times together, gathering a win percentage of 62.07% while scoring 2 goals on average and conceding 0.9 per game. Compare that to them not starting, and the win percentage drops to 54.41% in 68 matches. Average goals scored drops to 1.74 and average conceded rises to 1.04 per game. The higher sample size does play a part, yet the data shows that Fred and McTominay starting together has benefitted United more than anyone would’ve expected.
However, the duo has started only 10 matches against the top 6 of Premier League and European heavyweights (PSG & Barcelona in this case), the so called big matches. Although United have only won 5 of these 10 matches, the only 2 defeats were the ones against Barcelona. And that once again reinforces the manager’s belief in them for a big game. They add steel to the midfield in exchange of flair, and that works.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone if Ole continues to pick this midfield by benching Pogba and Van De Beek in big games. It is something that has worked for him, so why change it if it isn’t broken? However, against teams playing the deep block this midfield partnership does not provide enough creativity from the deep. Fred, McTominay, Pogba, Van De Beek, Matic are all assets to the club. They all add something different to the team. It is obviously up to the manager to select them on game by game basis. But for United to have a successful season, they’re going to need all of them. And that is a headache Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will relish.