3 attainable, exciting midfield options Manchester United should sign

With the imminent departures of at least 5 high-earners at Old Trafford – 4 of which operating in midfield – new manager Erik ten Hag will have a hole to fill and, crucially, money to spend.  This midfield gap has been the thorn in the side of every United manager since Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes hung up their boots in 2018 and 2013 respectively.

United’s hierarchy have made a nasty habit over the post-Ferguson era of purchasing ready-made stars and scratching their collective heads when these players flop – enter Angel di Maria, Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, even Juan Mata to an extent.

The fans at Old Trafford are becoming disillusioned with this model. The stars don’t inspire anymore, they frustrate. Instead, the fans crave young, exciting talent that the club can nurture and whose stock can rise at United, not elsewhere. Coming up are some reasonably priced, exciting, young players that fill the impending chasm left by Pogba, Matic, Mata and Lingard – one that is becoming increasingly too large for Scott McTominay and Fred.

Paul Pogba spent 6 unsuccessful seasons at Old Trafford during his second stint with the club.
(Photo by newsweek.com)

Midfield Option 1 – Xaver Schlager

Schlager has proven to be a firm fan-favourite everywhere the 24-year-old Austrian has played. Beginning his career in his native Austria, he helped RB Salzburg to 4 league titles, earning his first international cap at age 20 and going on to get another 25. This kind of early exposure to success has not gone to his head. He is an engine in the centre of midfield, who throughout his 3 seasons at Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, has started to hone the art of right-place-right-time. This knack is in short supply at MUFC, and would see him slot nicely into a midfield 2 or 3, alongside more creative, but less positionally-aware players.

Xaver Schlager (24) has racked up over 200 senior appearances for club and country.
(Photo by meinbezirk.at)

While at RB Salzburg, a man-of-the-match performance against Dortmund in the Europa League in 2018 turned several European clubs’ heads. It was Wolfsburg who plumped for the then 21-year-old in 2019. The following season, Schlager helped his team to a respectable 4th-place finish, excelling at the heart of an industrious midfield.

A nasty cruciate rupture vs. Greuther Furth derailed his 2021/22 in the 4th match of the season. Wolfsburg had won all their previous 3 and topped the Bundesliga at the time. In his absence, Wolfsburg lacked Schlager’s leadership and aggression in midfield. Wolfsburg fans were glad to see his return after a remarkably fast recovery of around 6 months. Comparable injuries often take north of a year to recover from. They were also relieved that Schlager had lost neither his off-the-ball energy, nor his impressive ball moving skills.

In the Bundesliga this season, Schlager excelled at applying successful pressures all over the midfield. His tackling was sublime and he blocked 2+ passes per game. CREDIT www.fbref.com


  • Understands the non-negotiables of defensive-midfield (tackling, marking, anticipation, concentration)
  • Progressive passer and mover – likes to be involved
  • Intelligent work-horse who fans adore
  • Available relatively cheaply (around £30 million) and won’t demand high wages
  • Fluent in English

Midfield Option 2 – Ismaël Bennacer

Algeria’s second brightest player, behind crosstown rival Riyad Mahrez, Manchester United could snatch up a potentially world-class midfielder in Bennacer. Debuting for French side AC Arlesian weeks after turning 18, he was picked up by Arsenal. After a lukewarm loan spell back in France and having never made a senior appearance for The Gunners, he left for Italy, firstly to Empoli, then giants AC Milan. He has since cemented his place as one of football’s brightest young midfielders. The 24-year-old’s release clause stands around the £42 million mark. For context, Fred was bought for around £50 million at a similar age.

Bennacer helped AC Milan to their 19th league title this season (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Used this season as a defensive midfielder, Ismaël Bennacer has seen his AC Milan side jostle for the eternally elusive Scudetto with bitter neighbours Inter all season. Ask any Milan fan, and they’ll say Bennacer, alongside Tomori and Kalulu, is their most important player.

In this more defensive role, he’s been able to showcase just how much he enjoys being busy. He hounds opposition players when out of possession, meaning he suits the pressing brand of football that ten Hag will demand. When possession is his, he is direct, creative, ambitious and, again, wants to be involved. His low centre-of-gravity means he is an excellent carrier. His vision allows for a wide range of passing options from midfield.

Bennacer was high-ranking across the midfield in Serie A this campaign. He showed proficiency in defensive pressures, dribbling, passing and drawing fouls. CREDIT www.fbref.com


  • All-round midfielder with great talent and superb potential
  • Brave and aggressive in the press
  • Intelligent on the ball
  • Works well across multiple roles in midfield
  • Speaks good English

Midfield Option 3 – Santiago Ascacíbar

A half-back/defensive midfield/anchor hybrid, Ascacíbar has been lauded as the next Javier Mascherano, owing not only to his Argentinian heritage – the 25-year-old has a mural of Maradona tattooed on his favoured right foot – but to his positional intelligence and hard, clean tackling. The Hertha Berlin #18 sits in front of the backline, reads the game ahead of him, and makes quick decisions off-the-ball when danger presents itself. His short, sturdy frame means he covers ground quickly and bullies opposition creators away from danger. His sliding tackling is exemplary.

Will Ascacíbar be the defensive-midfielder that United go for this summer? (Photo by welt.de)

Although the least technically gifted of the three players on the list, his speciality is arguably the most in-demand at United. An out-and-out holding midfielder who will aid both his more advanced teammates and the back four behind him. With a player like Ascacíbar in the team, forward-thinking players like Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho will have more license to roam, exploit and shine. In recent years, United’s midfield has not been providing the type of insurance that Ascacíbar offers. Hertha could let him go for around £20million, which represents excellent value for the Argentine.

Ascacíbar’s Bundesliga stats paint an exciting picture. He is among the league’s busiest for defensive tackling, pressures and interceptions. CREDIT www.fbref.com


  • Holding midfielder who specialises in cutting out danger
  • Excellent standing and sliding tackle
  • Allows creative players more freedom to roam out of position
  • Incredibly fit – no issues with injuries – could play 50+ games a season

Whoever Manchester United decide to plump for, there is a deep yearning from fans to be able to love their team again. A matchday banner of Paul Scholes adorns to East Stand at Old Trafford, which simply reads ‘Adored’, exemplifies this point poetically. For the past decade, a conveyor belt of poorly thought-out transfers has plagued the club, the dressing room and ultimately the fans’ enjoyment of the club. Give the fans some players who have something to prove to them, who can make them proud of the club they support and Erik ten Hag will have started off on the right foot.

Author: Sam Talbot

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