Ralf Rangnick’s pic-n-mix approach could solve Manchester United’s midfield problem for now

Central midfield. The number sixes. The double pivot. Call it whatever you want, it is Manchester United’s problem position – the area of the pitch where they appear to have many possible solutions but no obvious answer. Despite Ralf Rangnick having several options at his disposal, on the eve of the January window opening, it is generally accepted that he is in desperate need of reinforcements.

After all, the centre of midfield also happens to be an extremely important part of Rangnick’s trusted 4-2-2-2 system. It is quite literally the ‘pivot’ on which the rest of the team operates. It offers the protection which allows for a four-man attack with support from adventurous full-backs when his teams have the ball, and for an intense press and counter-press when they do not.

If Rangnick’s interim spell is to be a success, getting the right midfield partnership is a must. But United have churned through several over the past few years and never landed on one deemed satisfactory. The closest they have come is ‘McFred’ – Fred and Scott McTominay – a pairing that has generally offered greater solidity than its alternatives, but one that has still been involved in plenty of poor United performances.

One such performance came at St James’ Park earlier this week, when United’s inability to retain possession in midfield exposed them to wave after wave of Newcastle counter-attack. “The manager said we set the record for the most amount of turnovers [losses of possession due to mistakes] in the league,” McTominay has since revealed. “We had to keep the ball better.”

In response, Rangnick changed his midfield set-up for this visit of Burnley to Old Trafford. Fred was swapped out for Nemanja Matic while McTominay was retained, despite a late fitness test on an ankle injury picked up in the draw at Newcastle. What followed was far from a perfect display, but easily the best performance of Rangnick’s interim spell so far and also its most comfortable win.

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McTominay was at the heart of it, too, not only because it was his expertly struck effort from the edge of the penalty box which opened the scoring after eight minutes. One half of the much-maligned McFred partnership appeared to operate as more of a box-to-box player than usual, taking charge and making things happen in the middle of the park, as if liberated by playing alongside a team-mate more traditionally thought of as a holding player. Matic is a strange one, though.

It can feel as though the 33-year-old has been 33 years old ever since he joined United. He has always been one of this squad’s older players and, due to a lack of pace, athleticism and mobility, always looked like it too. But it is easy to forget he arrived five years ago as a Premier League title-winning holding midfielder, and while that title came alongside a one-man midfield who covered a lot of Matic’s weaknesses in N’Golo Kane, there are strengths too.

Matic’s range of passing and vision is an undervalued aspect of his all-round game. In the league last season, only Bruno Fernandes played more progressive passes per-90 than Matic of those United players to enjoy more than 10 games’ worth of minutes. Judging by Rangnick’s post-match comments, it sounds as though after a few weeks in the job, he has already recognised this.

“We decided to play with the two sixes as they did and to have Nemanja in the team as a sort of quarterback player, who can calm the game down and play the passes from that position,” he said. Against a Burnley side that struggled to disrupt United’s build-up play and was quite happy to sit tight and hold shape once the ball was in midfield, Matic had the time to do as Rangnick asked and McTominay was released as a result.

Which is not to say that ‘McMatic’ should be the new partnership going forward. Against opponents who take a slightly different approach and are more proactive pressing in the middle of the pitch, this partnership could easily run into difficulties. Remember the only other game this season which saw McTominay and Matic start as a pair without Fred? Full marks if you said the 4-1 defeat to Watford, the game that lost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job.

The truth is that United’s midfield conundrum probably cannot be solved without spending, even if that always seems to be the answer at Old Trafford. A January addition is unlikely given the nature of the market, though not impossible. Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassekou are two players at former clubs of Rangnick whose names are doing the rounds. But if nothing is possible between now and the end of the month, United’s interim manager will need to be creative.

All of his midfield options have their strengths, they all have their weaknesses. Sometimes they are the right notes to play, sometimes they are the wrong ones. If Rangnick can start playing them in the right order, tailoring them to the opposition as he did with McTominay and Matic for this comfortable win over Burnley, then that pick-n-mix approach may just help United muddle through.

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