“Guys, you’re still trying to replace Giambi. I told you, we can’t do it. We can’t do it. What we might be able to do is recreate him. Recreate him in the aggregrate.”
The quote above is from the film Moneyball, and whilst that film (and the book it is based on) is about Baseball, if you replace Jason Giambi with Paul Scholes, the quote hits at the heart of the difficulties Manchester United have encountered in the transfer market since Scholes’ retirement. There are players in sport like Scholes who possess a rare talent which makes them incredibly difficult to directly replace. For the Oakland A’s, their task was made even more difficult due to the fact they had one of the smallest budgets in Major League Baseball at the time, but even for a financial powerhouse like Manchester United, the challenge is considerable. Those handful of players with comparable skillsets are already the lynchpins of other major teams who would never willingly sell such a key player to a domestic or European rival, so a like-for-like replacement is out of the question. Alternative options include recruiting a completely different type of player and adapting the team’s style and tactics accordingly, or investing in a young player with the potential to become a Scholes-calibre player over time.
If you look at United’s recent recruitment, they have tried almost everything and their failures far outweigh their successes. United recruited Nick Powell and Shinji Kagawa in the Summer of 2012 ahead of what was to be Scholes’ final season, and then recruited Maroaune Fellaini and Juan Mata the following season. Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria and Daley Blind joined in Summer 2014, as did Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin one year later. Twelve months on, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were the latest duo to be recruited, followed by Nemanja Matic and Fred over the next two years. Thirteen players capable of playing in a central midfield role recruited for a combined fee in excess of £430 million over the span of six years, and yet looking at their current midfield options, they arguably need to recruit at least one central midfielder this Summer too.
Manchester United’s Plus Minus ratings last season were led by Ander Herrera with +15, who has now left to join PSG. In joint second place were Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata on +13. Rumours persist over Pogba’s future, and whilst Juan Mata can operate in a central midfield role, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer tends to play him further forward. The same is also true of the next highest midfielder on the list, Jesse Lingard on +9. The other central midfield options all recorded negative Plus Minus ratings last season; Fred finished on -1, Andreas Pereira on -5 and Scott McTominay on -6, the lowest of all United players. Whilst it was Fred’s first season and Pereira (23 years old) and McTominay (22 years old) are still relatively young, it would be expecting a lot of any of them to improve significantly enough to replace the void left by Herrera, yet alone provide the solution to United’s long-standing midfield issues.
If United are to recruit though, how can they avoid repeating the same mistakes? One improvement would be to identify which role they need filling most urgently and then recruit someone who specialises in that role. If you look through the list of recent signings above, there are talented players like Mkhitaryan, Di Maria and even Pogba who were recruited on the basis of their performances in a role which didn’t feature in United’s normal tactical set-up. This therefore forces a compromise, either through changing the formation to fit the incoming player into their preferred role, or forcing the player to play in a different role, which therefore begs the question of why that particular player was recruited in the first place.
The type of player I would be looking at would be someone like Wilfred Ndidi. At 22 years old, he could be a long-term midfield option and there is an obvious role for him in the United midfield. If Solksjaer wants to play a 4-2-3-1, then he would play alongside either Matic, Fred or McTominay as a deep pivot, whilst he would be the deepest midfielder in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 diamond.
Ndidi isn’t the finished article. His pass completion rate in particular is something which he should be looking to improve, sitting at 79.89% last season (N’Golo Kante by contrast recorded a pass completion rate of 87.88%). However, Ndidi knows his role and performs it effectively. Last season he recorded the 3rd most interceptions in the league and was the league leader for most tackles. United’s defence is likely to look somewhat different to last season too, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka potential not the only recruit in that area of the pitch, and therefore someone who is as effective at screening the back four as Ndidi would help that transition, whilst also freeing up the likes of Pogba (assuming he stays) to spend more of their energy creating rather than defending.