Manchester United currently sit top of the Premier League table, three points clear of rivals Liverpool. The sides will meet this Sunday in a crucial game, yet there are question marks over exactly which midfielders Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will pick to play.
While Bruno Fernandes is a guaranteed starter, the players around him are constantly changing.
The end of 2019/20 saw Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic form an effective double pivot. Yet the harder-working pair of Fred and Scott McTominay has been favoured this season.
The issue is that neither duo stands out.
Pogba’s desire to leave the club is no secret. When he plays, United need a steady base of Matic to protect the back four. The Frenchman’s lack of effort to defend at times means that he must have a disciplined ball-winner beside him who will sacrifice his attacking game for the sake of defensive duties.
Matic is a decent option beside him as he rarely gets forward, but the issue is his immobility at 32-years-old.
Fred and McTominay have both put up good defensive numbers this season, yet they are very similar to each other. They are both aggressive in their attempts to win the ball. They are not disciplined enough to cover an attack-minded partner.
Neither of them are really capable of having a big attacking contribution. Both are excellent squad players to have, but they should not be first-choice for a team of United’s standard.
So the Red Devils will probably need two midfielders to play in a new-look double pivot.
Pogba will probably leave next summer, but if they could sign one out-and-out defensive midfielder this month it would allow him to contribute to his full ability in the meantime.
Then next summer, they could sign another box-to-box midfielder. Someone with good attacking ability but also works hard defensively.
The likes of Yves Bissouma, Manuel Locatelli and Mikel Merino fit the bill here.
In the meantime, they need a No 6. Here, we will highlight some of the best options available.
Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi is the obvious candidate.
The Nigerian has been nothing short of a revelation for the Foxes since arriving from Genk in 2017.
Sitting at the base of the superb Leicester midfield trio, Ndidi has put up elite defensive numbers for over three years now.
He has averaged 6.04 tackles and interceptions per game in the league since his arrival in January 2017.
Even this season, in what has been an injury-hit campaign, Ndidi has managed to put up the highest average tackle and interception numbers per 90 for midfielders to have played more than three games in Europe’s top five leagues, with 6.2.
Admittedly, it is a small sample size as he only has eight league appearances. Yet three of these have come at centre-back so his numbers would probably be even higher if he was played solely in his preferred position.
He does have a tendency to give the ball away in dangerous areas at times. There have been a few occasions where he has passed to the opponent on the edge of the area or played a blind back pass.
Yet it is not a regular scenario, and he will likely grow out of it as he gets older.
The only other issue is his injury record. Ndidi was not injury prone up until last season. Yet since January 2020, he has missed a total of 14 games through three separate injuries. It may just be an unfortunate spell, but United must be wary of Ndidi’s tendency to pick up knocks going forward.
However, he is worth the risk due to the sheer amount of defending he does. There is no better ball-winner around.
What’s more, is that he only recently turned 24. He could play at the top level for another ten years yet.
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa
Next on the list of potential Man United defensive midfielders is Fulham’s Andre Anguissa.
Similar to Ndidi, Anguissa has been putting up elite defensive numbers for a while now.
While he signed for Fulham from Marseille for big money in 2018, it is only this season that the Cottagers are reaping the benefits of the all-action star.
That is because he was sent on loan to Villarreal last season while Fulham spent a year in the Championship. Anguissa quietly had an outstanding season in Spain, which led Fulham fans wondering if they could keep him this campaign.
Fortunately for them, they held onto their man. The Cameroonian has picked up exactly where he left off in La Liga.
Yet it is with the ball at his feet where he really excels. Anguissa has completed the fifth most dribbles per game in Europe this season and number one for midfielders.
He is incredibly dynamic and would be perfect as part of the pair behind Bruno Fernandes. As long as his partner knows to cover him when he goes on one of his dribbles, that is.
A year older than Ndidi but also likely to come much cheaper, Andre Anguissa may be the man for Man United.
The final man we will highlight in detail is ex-Arsenal youth player Ismael Bennacer.
The Algerian left the Gunners in 2017 without playing a senior game for them. He joined Empoli in Serie B, who he helped gain promotion. Bennacer then shone for the side in 2018/19, despite only turning 21 midway through the season.
He could not prevent relegation, however, and AC Milan were quick to snap him up. He hit the ground running at the San Siro and has starred for the Rossoneri ever since.
This season has seen him pick up a few injuries, but he is still putting up excellent numbers. However, we will use last season as a reference point due to the larger sample size.
First and foremost, Bennacer averaged 4.96 tackles and interceptions per 90 last term. While not as high as Ndidi or Anguissa, it is still an excellent number. He also plays in a more ball-dominant side.
Bennacer is superb at getting the ball up the pitch from deep. He attempted 2.97 dribbles per 90 last campaign with an 81% success rate.
He is a quarter-back-type No 6, attempting 10.3 long balls per 90, with a success rate of 70.1%. The French-born Bennacer is also an accurate short passer, completing 94% of his attempts this season.
He made 2.46 shot-creating actions per 90 in 19/20, an excellent number for a deep midfielder.
The 23-year-old is basically everything you look for in a No 6. He is also used to playing in the same formation that Solskjaer uses. This would make his adaption to United’s team much easier.
Finally, Milan signed starlet Sandro Tonali last summer, who also plays in holding midfield. He is someone that Italian football fans have incredibly high hopes for.
The seven-time champions of Europe may be open to selling Bennacer in the knowledge that they have a fantastic replacement already in the squad.
There are many other No 6’s around Europe that United could potentially attempt to sign.
Denis Zakaria is another great option. The Borussia Monchengladbach man has proved to be an excellent player and is ready to make the step up to a major club.
Declan Rice would also be a fantastic option, yet he would probably cost a fortune. He also looks likely to join Chelsea at some stage soon.
Finally, Ibrahim Sangare has built on his breakout campaign last season since he swapped Toulouse for PSV, while Alex Kral at Spartak Moscow would also be a good budget option.
There is no shortage of available defensive midfielders around. Man United need to sort this problem position as soon as possible.