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Five Potential Long-Term Defensive Midfield Targets Who Could Marshal Manchester United’s Midfield for Years to Come

Manchester United Transfer, United, defensive midfield target United

Nemanja Matic’s recent new contract brought some divided reaction from the Manchester United, with many feeling that the Serbian maestro no longer holds the legs and mobility needed to spearhead United’s midfield for the near future.

While some of these opinions ring true, it’s also important to remember that Nemanja Matic is enjoying an impressive renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the past few months. The Serbian has found his mojo again, bullish in the middle, a metronome when recycling and progressing the ball and a positional understanding that only few in the Premier League can match.

However, securing Matic’s long term future does not mean United should stop planning for the future. OGS will certainly be looking to further reshape his squad this summer as they aim to challenge on all fronts for next season. Fred and Scott McTominay have provided much stability and control in midfield this season, but neither of them hold the assurance, authority and dominance required to be hugely effective in the defensive-midfield role.

Nemanja Matic won’t be as efficient and dominant as he is now, for much longer, so United cannot afford to halt any plans to look for his long-term successor. Someone who could potentially add stability, mobility, a huge tactical and positional understanding, can circulate possession progressively and is combative in his defensive work. One who could screen in front of the back four competently, a much younger and fresher candidate.

Here are five young defensive-midfield target who could potentially fulfil such roles for United in the years to come:

Declan Rice, West Ham

 

West Ham’s poor showings throughout the season has come at a huge surprise to many, considering the amount of quality in their squad. It is indeed a club who really shouldn’t be fighting relegation like they have been.

With Premier League safety all but confirmed, it still doesn’t take away the amount of work David Moyes will have to undergo in order to ensure that seasons like this doesn’t occur again. One aspect sure to be on top of Moyes’ agenda is the future of star man Declan Rice.

A player who has come on leaps and bounds this season, and certainly deserves a shot much greener pastures. The former Chelsea academy product has been heavily linked with a return to Stamford Bridge this summer, and he is a target that Solskjaer should certainly explore when looking for a long-term defensive midfield option for United.

A future club & country captain. Declan Rice fits the mould. Since the Premier League restart, Rice has been a standout performer throughout as West Ham looked to secure Premier League security. His performance in the win over Chelsea was nothing short of spectacular.

Showcasing just why he’s rumoured to make the big step up, Rice is just the midfield target that United need to consider for the long haul. This season has shown him transform into one of the most complete defensive midfielders in the top-flight. Incredibly mobile, dominant in the tackle, massively improved in his distribution and has stepped up as a leader alongside Mark Noble in the West Ham team.

His spectacular goal against Watford put the gloss on yet another dominant performance at the heart of West Ham’s midfield. He’s averaged 3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1.4 clearances per game this season {WhoScored}. He’s also not afraid to dribble out of trouble or to progress play for the Hammers highlighting his incredible bravery in taking the onus upon himself to conjure up some magic for the team.

Rice also averages 6.33 successful pressures per 90 as well as averaging under 50 passes per game with 85.7% passing success rate. The England international is also not afraid to send a long-raking pass to his forwards if needed, averaging 3.4 long passes per game. It’s clear United need a progressive defensive midfielder but also someone who could consummately screen the back four, breaking up attacks as well as counter attacks and also holding the ability to scan for any threats and stop them before they reach the back-line. Declan Rice is one of the best possible midfield target who possesses all of those characteristics, one United could seriously consider recruiting.

Florentino Luis, Benfica

One of the most prestigious and coveted defensive midfielders in European football. Benfica’s Florentino Luis is on his way to worldwide stardom.

The 20-year-old midfield prodigy holds all the ingredients necessary to make it at the top level and is already a target for major clubs like AC Milan and Manchester United according to various reports.

The Portuguese is a midfield destroyer rather than a creative force. His fine reading of the game, combativeness in the tackle, tactical awareness, positional sense and incredible to screen and snuff out danger makes him a huge candidate to step in Nemanja Matic’s shoes.

He may not be the tallest like the Serbian but his incredible power, despite his small frame, his mobility and knack of moping out danger means he could be huge asset for any top European side.

Florentino Luis may be a destroyer but he holds a unique flair that allows him to stand out through his technical qualities and impressive skills and composure in possession, but its generally a no-nonsense defensive midfield role that he so regularly thrives in. He’s another N’Golo Kante.

Despite his limited game time this season, only featuring eight times for Benfica in the Portuguese top-flight, he still manages to impress when called upon, averaging 3 tackles per game, 4 interceptions, 1.3 dribbles and a passing success rate of almost 90% (as per WhoScored.com)

The Benfica wonderkid is not only a defensive mastermind, but also a silky footballer when he wants to be. His relatively small frame, but lanky legs means he’s incredibly adept at covering so much ground that its very difficult to get past him, all of which makes him a perfect midfield target for United.

Marc Roca, Espanyol

Arguably, the next best thing to Sergio Busquets in the Spanish La Liga if provided with the opportunity. Espanyol’s Marc Roca is an incredibly talented defensive midfielder.

The club may have been relegated from the Spanish top-flight, but Roca will certainly be plying his trade at a much better outfit for next season. The Spanish midfielder is already attracting a lot of interest an Manchester United could well in putting their name in the hat for his signature.

Predominantly used as a defensive midfielder for nearly all of the season for Espanyol, Roca also holds the capabilities to perform further up the field largely down to his impressive technical qualities in possession, vision and ability to operate in tight areas.

Roca averages 6.78 passes into the final third. The midfielder is a risk-taker, not afraid to try the most difficult passes in between the lines in order to pick out his teammates in more dangerous areas. Averaging 50 passes per game, his pass success rate at 81% may seem relatively low for a player of his incredible play-making qualities, but that’s just it, Roca is a deep-lying playmaker. He is required to take risks in possession as well as keeping things ticking over, recycling possession and playing progressive balls to his forwards.

Once the Spaniard receives the ball from the goalkeeper or centre-backs, he ensures he stationed in an adequate space to receive the ball and then look up and spry passes to the wingers or forwards. It may seem so ordinary but in fact, Roca makes it all look easy, adding a sprinkle of Spanish elegance with it all. He’s also very well responsible and effective in his defensive duels, winning 1.51 tackles per 90, 0.89 interceptions and 5.81 successful pressures.

Marc Roca would considerably thrive in a possession heavy side. A quality midfield target for Solskjaer should United be interested in his services.

Konrad Laimer, RB Leipzig

One of the most destructive defensive midfielders in Europe right now. RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer has rapidly emerged on the scene this season in what’s been an impressive campaign for Julian Nagelsmann men as they finished the Bundesliga 2019/20 campaign in 3rd place.

Now the questions remain for this well-knit exciting Leipzig team, is can they go that one bit further even without their main talisman Timo Werner who’s recently completed his move to Chelsea? Can they improve further on their 3rd place and really challenge Bayern Munich, or even knock them off their perch? For that to happen, players like Konrad Laimer must remain part of the project.

The Austrian is incredibly versatile. Nagelsmann has deployed him in a number of positions this season. Defensive midfield, centre-midfield, right back, right-wing back and and even at centre-back when needed, owing to the German coach’s flexibility and variety of different systems. Whether Konrad Laimer is utilised, he performs to the best of his ability.

Laimer is a real terrier-like performer, constantly moving, pressing his opponents, marauding forwards in search of a goal, offering an option in possession, passes the ball well and most of all, destructive and combative in the tackle. His defensive duels stats make for such damning reading, making him arguably the best defensive midfielder in Europe.

If Manchester United are serious about reading adding ready-made quality to their defensive midfield arsenal, then Konrad Laimer is their target. However, he has recently signed a new contract to remain at the Red Bull Arena so Leipzig will demand a relatively high fee if there were to be talks about him leaving the club.

Whatever the Austrian’s price may be, he may just be worth every single penny.

Teun Koopmeiners, AZ Alkmaar

 

14 goals and 3 assists for a defensive midfielder is an unimaginable feat, regardless of how the goals may come. Yes, Teun Koopmeiners is AZ Alkmaar’s designated penalty and dead-ball specialist, but doesn’t that mean he’s got so much to offer in his weaponry? That has relatively been the case in what was a spectacular season for such an exciting, well drilled team under the tutelage of Arne Slot.

AZ are blessed with riches of youth talents such Calvin Stengs, Myron Boadu, Oussama Idrissi, Owen Wijndal and Daniel de Wit. While Koopmeiners may not be as stylish and as flamboyant as them, he’s the glue that holds everything together.

If Manchester United require a real deep-lying playmaker, one from where the midfield concept originates from – the Netherlands – then Koopmeiners is their target.

The 22-year-old Dutchman’s passing and distribution is the hallmark of his game. He’s the AZ quarter-back, receiving the ball and constantly circulating possession, finding pockets of space within the middle third to disrupt the opponent’s shape and provide and option for his teammates to find him when trying to keep the ball.

Like most deep-lying midfielders, their job is to receive the ball from the centre-backs or goalkeepers and provide the anchor for which every attack is formed from. Koopmeiners is the true essence of that trait, whenever he receives the ball, he’s always looking forward and is very well capable of dissecting defences with his outrageous long-raking passes.

The AZ attack is tailor made for someone of Koopmeiner’s distribution qualities because they are constantly on the move off the ball which makes it easier for him to pick them out whether with a long-pass or a ground one.

Koopmeiners averages 82 passes per game in the Dutch Eredivisie, with a 87.2% pass success rate which is simply outstanding considering he too is a risk-taker on the ball. He also averages 5.8 long passes per game, highlighting his incredible distribution and vision. He regularly scans ahead before receiving the ball, he holds a picture of what he wants to do and executes it expertly.

With the pace, movement and speed at which is shown in Manchester United’s attacking weaponry, it is already tailor made for someone of Koopmeiner’s qualities. Solskjaer presently doesn’t possess a midfielder who can pick out attacking players with some fine long-passes, who can keep things ticking over despite constant pressure from his opponents, it may be time to fix that by showing an interest in AZ’s midfield orchestrator Teun Koopmeiners. He’s ready for that next step.


Anthony Onifade
A highly ambitious and motivated freelance football journalist always ready to speak his mind regarding the current affairs that arise throughout the footballing world, especially the Barclays Premier League and around Europe within the context of the Champions League. Owner of a well-renowned football website called 'Between the Lines' and a frequent listener and speaker on various football radio and podcast shows. Young, driven, dedicated, determined and a true football fanatic. Expect his contributions to 'It's Round and White' to be extremely engaging.

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