Which Defensive Midfielder Target Should we Sign?

For this upcoming transfer window, it has been reported that United are looking to sign a right winger, a striker and a central midfielder. With the right wing target looking likely to be Jadon Sancho (especially after the latest reports) that the club will try to sign, and the striker probably being Odion Ighalo’s loan deal being made permanent, a question mark still hangs over who the club will look in to bring to reinforce the midfield. The rumour mill has churned out the name of Jack Grealish recently, but with us signing Fernandes in January, one would think there is a less urgent need for another attacking midfielder of his ilk, unless Lingard and/or Pereira were to depart the club this summer. Most people seem to think the role of a defensive midfielder is a more urgent matter at the moment.

Despite Matic’s resurgence in the latter part of this season, he is not getting any younger (turns 32 this August) or more mobile and neither McTominay nor Fred have the ability to really play as a lone anchor man, which would allow the other midfielders to push forward. If Pogba stays, logic dictates that Bruno will play in the number 10 role just off of Martial, and Pogba would play in a double pivot with either Fred of McTominay. The issue we have is that if the full backs push forward alongside Pogba, this will leave the other man of the pivot alone to cover the wings and help protect the centre backs. This is one of the reasons many people believe we need to search for a defensive midfielder this summer, more of a specialist who revels in this role. Someone who is able to screen the centre backs, help cover the attacking full backs but also someone, preferably, who still offers something on the ball. In this break down, I will take a closer look at 5 defensive midfielders that we have been linked with a lot this past year, plus a bonus player that I think would suit our style of play that we haven’t yet been really linked with, and go through their stats, strength and weaknesses and how they would fit into the system that Ole looks to play his team in.


Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City)

All data in bold indicates the highest statistics amongst the players in the article

Passing Accuracy87.7%
Long Passes2.03
Dribbles Completed0.62
Total Duels Won12.3
Interceptions7.22
Possession Losses(In own half)8.5(4.28)
Ball Recoveries(In opp half)12.06(4.18)
Aerial Duels Won2.55
Defensive Duels Won6.20
Key Passes0.38
Progressive Runs0.4
Final Third Passes4.62
Forward Passes(% of total)12.33(21.66%)
League Stats Only, stat names highlighted you can click on to read more about
All statistics courtesy of WyScout and are per 90

Top 10 Rankings amongst PL midfielders, >15 league app (data courtesy of WhoScored)

  • 1st for Successful Tackles
  • 1st for Interceptions
  • 2nd for Passes Blocked
  • 3rd in Clearances
  • 4th for Crosses Blocked
  • 4th for Aerial Duels Won
  • 9th for Goals in Penalty Area
  • 37th of 43 for Ball Losses due to Bad First Touch

Our first Premier League midfielder we have been linked with, Wilfred Ndidi currently plays for Leicester City, often as the lone anchor man in the 4-1-4-1 they have played this season. At 23 years old and standing 6ft, his market value is currently £32.4 million, though would likely cost more considering he plays for a Premier League club. He has played 23 matches this season, with 22 of those being as a defensive midfielder. The Nigerian is regarded as the best and most consistent ball winner of any Premier League midfielder, and it can be seen why as this season, he ranked 1st in tackles and interceptions across the division in his position. He is very used to playing as a lone DM and not in a pivot, so if Ole decided to play a 4-1-2-1-2 for example, with two more advanced midfielders, Ndidi would be very accomplished in this role. Wilfred is excellent at covering the space left behind the attacking full backs to help prevent counter attacks. When it comes to one-on-one defensive scenarios, he has great lateral movement and is very good at holding up attackers and winning the ball to prevent the counter. He is not flat footed in this scenario, so the forwards find it very hard to get past him. He is very good at recycling possession, as he looks to win the ball high up and then pass it to teammates to start a new attack. When it comes to reading the oppositions play, he is outstanding, and this shows as he has managed to make 7.22 interceptions per 90 this season. Over the seasons at Leicester, he has improved his ability to switch the play with long balls to the opposite flank. Despite this, the biggest weakness in his game is the lack of creativity from a deep position, he lacks the vision to regularly make line-breaking passes and produce much himself from deep. With this considered, you would need to make sure to include other creators in the midfield e.g. Pogba if he stays, to make up for this lack of creativeness. He is a competent dribbler, at just over 50% and will use this to get out of sticky situations; he does possess good tight ball control which can allow him to turn easily out of an aggressive press, hence why he loses the ball less than most midfielders in the Premier League via a poor first touch. In the air he is very strong too, ranking 4th in the league for aerial duels won in his role. In conclusion, he would be a great signing if Solskjaer was looking for a player to fit the destroyer mould, someone who would be able to play as part of a double pivot and then allow the adjacent player more freedom to roam forwards in possession, he would preferably be paired with someone who could play the role of a deep lying playmaker, which would help us break down blocks ahead of the team, ideally from the current squad this would be Pogba, as he is the midfielder with the range and vision to create from deeper against low blocks, also allowing Pogba to operate as a mezzala or roaming play-maker if needed to as well. Likewise, if Ole was looking to play a lone DM, like in his 4-4-2 diamond, he would be ideal in this role as he is already adjusted to the role and possesses excellent concentration allowing him to manage the defensive duties well. His only real downside is the lack of creativity on the ball, but if he was not signed with this being the hope for his role, he would excel at United as a ball winning midfielder or anchor man.

“I’m not surprised, no. We know we are a better team with him in it, there’s no question.”

Brendan Rodgers when asked about their bad form stopping once Ndidi returned from injury, 2020

Declan Rice (West Ham United)

All data in bold indicates the highest statistics amongst the players in the article

Passing Accuracy88.5%
Long Passes2.08
Dribbles Completed0.96
Total Duels Won8.82
Interceptions5.11
Possession Losses(In own half)6.46(3.46)
Ball Recoveries(In opp half)10.32(3.48)
Aerial Duels Won1.22
Defensive Duels Won4.54
Key Passes0.29
Progressive Runs0.89
Final Third Passes4.89
Forward Passes(% of total)9.62(27.50%)
League Stats Only, stat names highlighted you can click on to read more about
All statistics courtesy of WyScout and are per 90

Top 10 Rankings amongst PL midfielders, >15 league apps (data courtesy of WhoScored)

  • 2nd for Successful Tackles
  • 6th for Interceptions
  • 35th of 43 for Ball Losses due to Bad First Touch

The second midfielder we have been linked with a fair amount is West Ham United’s, Declan Rice. The 21 year old English midfielder stands at 6ft 1in, and has a market value of £44.55 million, which would in reality be a higher transfer cost due to him playing in England and counting towards the homegrown quota. He has played 29 league matches this season, with 6 being at central midfield, and the other 23 at defensive midfield. Having formerly been a centre back, he possesses very good natural defensive instincts, as can be seen by the fact he ranks 2nd in the division for successful tackles per 90 in his position, only behind the aforementioned Ndidi. Overall, he is vastly improved upon the previous season. Whilst defending the counter attack, he has become very good at being able to hold the advance up and then being able to win the ball off of the attacker. When it comes to on the ball, he is a neat and tidy passer, completing 88.5% of all of his passes, and then 63.7% of his long passes. He doesn’t have elite vision on the ball and this can be seen by his 0.29 key passes per 90, not a vast number of chances being created. Usually when playing, he has been deployed as either a lone anchor man, or as part of a two man pivot. When part of a pivot, he has played on either side, however I believe he is more comfortable on the left of the two. This is because it is more natural to him, being right footed, when he plays cross field balls, left to right. When he is on the right and tries cross field balls to the left wing, he often struggles slightly as he has less angles on his right boot from that side. His passing range has improved whilst in the side, with his switching of play from left to right being his particular strong point. Back to him playing as a lone DM, he has good concentration in the game and is has strong awareness of his position, so can position himself well for opponent counter attacks. On the ball, when he pushes further up the field, he does struggle on the ball in tight spaces under pressure, especially when the ball is bouncing or when he is required to make a quick change of direction off of his first touch. Due to his height, he is a good aerial presence, even in the opponents box, often being a target for the sides corners. If United are looking to sign a DM with Pogba staying, he could be a good signing as Pogba would play the deep lying playmaker role alongside him, yet he may need to work on his right to left switch as Paul would probably play on the left. However, if Pogba is sold, then playing Rice alongside McTominay or Fred in a pivot could work against big sides, but would probably lack the creativity to regularly break down low block sides due to his lack of on ball creativity. If I was the club, Ndidi would probably be a better purchase than Rice as they have similar attributes, but Ndidi does them slightly better.

“In my mind he is arguably the best holding midfield player in the country and the best thing about Declan is he will get better.”

David Moyes on Declan Rice, 2020

Thomas Partey (Atletico Madrid)

All data in bold indicates the highest statistics amongst the players in the article

Passing Accuracy86.1%
Long Passes3.61
Dribbles Completed1.34
Total Duels Won10.47
Interceptions5.05
Possession Losses(In own half)7.78(3.01)
Ball Recoveries(In opp half)10.70(3.38)
Aerial Duels Won2.22
Defensive Duels Won4.26
Key Passes0.69
Progressive Runs0.88
Final Third Passes7.88
Forward Passes(% of total)14.91(32.63%)
League Stats Only, stat names highlighted you can click on to read more about
All statistics courtesy of WyScout and are per 90

Top 10 Rankings amongst La Liga midfielders, >15 league apps (data courtesy of WhoScored)

  • 2nd for Successful Dribbles
  • 4th for Interceptions
  • 4th for Shots from Outside the Box
  • 5th for Goals from Outside the Box
  • 7th for Successful Tackles
  • 9th for Clearances
  • 9th for Total Passes
  • 10th for Accurate Short Passes

For our first midfielder outside of England, we take a look at Atletico Madrid man, Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian is 6ft 1in and is 26 years old, his current transfer market value is £36 million but has a release clause of £43 million. This would provide great value to the transfer, especially considering the figures of some recent transfers. During this league campaign, he has played 24 games, with 14 as a central midfielder, 9 at defensive midfield and even one as an attacking midfielder. He is regarded usually as either a box to box or ball winning midfielder. Over the past 2 seasons, he has developed into an elite level midfielder with many strong assets to his game now. Defensively, he is very good at reading opposition passes and closes the lanes very well, leading to his high 5.05 interceptions per 90, 4th in La Liga for midfielders. When opposition players have a pass coming into them, he presses very quickly, either winning the ball himself, or forcing the opposing player into a rushed action, often forcing a mistake out of them. On the counter, he is very good at covering for each full back (he even has played right back before) and this could be seen against Liverpool when he stopped both Salah and Mane on each wing at points to cover for his full back. Usually, when playing as a defensive midfielder, he has operated as part of a double pivot. He is equally comfortable on the left or the right of the midfield. In the first leg of the Champions League tie against Liverpool, he played on the right, and in the return leg played on the left. He was extremely impressive in both ties, and had a monstrous performance in the second leg as Madrid’s best outfield player. When it comes to looking at him on the ball, he has vastly improved, particularly on his long balls, which he utilises to initiate attacks and switch play from one side to the other. He has a great first touch, and even though capable of executing one touch passes, often goes for a two touch pass. He is very press resistant as when pressed he has excellent composure, uses feints, shields the ball well and will either pass or dribble his way out of trouble. This is evident as he has completed the 2nd most dribbles for a midfielder this season. When it comes to movement, he has elite ability to create space for himself and make himself available for passes, and he is also brilliant at using his movement to create space for his teammates. His only possible weakness is probably his slight lack of incisive passing, but despite this, he has vastly improved his line-breaking passes over the last few seasons. This is evident as in the big games, he is often tasked with progressing the ball, as seen earlier in the season against Real Madrid. He was the player making the passes through the Real Madrid block to the Atletico attackers. It was an incredible performance from Partey, and one I would recommend to watch to see how he plays. To conclude, Thomas Partey would be a fantastic signing for United. He has the versatility required to play either as part of a 2 man pivot on either side, to play as either a box to box in the pivot like Fred, or strictly as a ball winning midfielder similar to Ndidi if needed in specific scenarios. In the 4-4-2 diamond we sometimes use, he has the ability to play in front of the lone DM on either side, or as the DM if needed to as well. The main problem with his signing would be convincing him to leave Atletico as there is no indication he wants any move, despite all the reports.

“If he had come from an English or German team, he would be [lauded] but he’s from the academy so he’s just Thomas.”

Diego Simeone when asked if Thomas Partey is underappreciated, 2019

Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

All data in bold indicates the highest statistics amongst the players in the article

Passing Accuracy89.40%
Long Passes1.09
Dribbles Completed1.92
Total Duels Won10.50
Interceptions5.05
Possession Losses(In own half)5.66(2.52)
Ball Recoveries(In opp half)9.75(2.97)
Aerial Duels Won1.00
Defensive Duels Won5.18
Key Passes0.44
Progressive Runs1.31
Final Third Passes3.91
Forward Passes(% of total)9.27(27.82%)
League Stats Only, stat names highlighted you can click on to read more about
All statistics courtesy of WyScout and are per 90

Top 10 Rankings amongst Bundesliga midfielders, >15 league apps (data courtesy of WhoScored)

  • 2nd for Successful Dribbles
  • 4th for Blocked Shots
  • 4th for Goals in 6 Yard Box
  • 5th for Passing Accuracy
  • 5th for Shots in 6 Yard Box
  • 6th for Blocked Crosses
  • 7th for Goals in Penalty Area
  • 8th for Successful Tackles
  • 8th for Blocked Passes
  • 9th for Shots Outside Box
  • 9th for Total Goals
  • 10th for Interceptions
  • 10th for Total Shots
  • 10th for Shots in Penalty Area
  • 19th of 23 for Ball Losses due to Bad First Touch

Now we will take a look at a rising star in the Bundesliga we have been reported to be interested in, Denis Zakaria. The Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder is 23 years old, stands 6ft 3in and is a Swiss national. His market value is £32.40 million. This season he has played 23 games. 16 of these have come as a defensive midfielder, 4 games at central midfield and 3 as a centre back; this shows great versatility for Zakaria. He is a very athletic player and looks to often dominate his opponents physically. Denis has mastered being able to position himself between the body of the opponent and the ball and using his strength to win the ball back in this way. He will often press to block passing lanes throughout the game in the centre, forcing teams to play the wide option which makes it much easier for his side to press and contain them. When his side are out of possession, he looks to recover the ball very aggressively and win back possession as early as possible. Linking from this, he is very difficult to beat in one-on-one situations, this is seen as he wins 71% of his defensive duels in the league. Due to his good acceleration, pace and stamina, he is very capable of defending opposing wingers and full backs that attack the flanks vacated by his own full backs and will often be seen doing either this, or tracking runners from their midfield. When playing as a defensive midfielder, he usually either plays as a lone anchor man, or on the left of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1. In this deep role, he will often come deep to collect the ball, making himself always available to the centre backs to pass to, a great asset for a team trying to build from the back. Then when on the ball, he has excellent decision making. He often will make lots of simple passes to maintain possession for the side, shown by him ranking 5th in the league for pass accuracy from midfielders. He does like to switch play to exploit any available space on the opposite flank, and then will usually move over to that side of the midfield to provide passing options to his teammates. When his team are on the ball, he will sit outside of the opponents defensive block so that the side will always have a safe option for a pass should they run into trouble. By him spending lots of the game behind the ball, it maintains that link to play the ball back to and also means his position is maintained to halt any counter attacks. When it comes to dribbling, he is very accomplished (ranking 2nd in the division), and if he is shown open space, he will not hesitate to take advantage and drive into the open field and break the lines. When he does venture forwards, he displays a good IQ and will often sniff out and position himself in any spaces in the defence. Sometimes, he has even had to play as the centre of a back 3, such is his versatility and defensive prowess. the only criticism you could maybe aim at him, is the lack of aerial duels for his height. If United were to sign Zakaria, they could use him in either a double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 alongside Pogba if he stays and because of his own creativity, allowing Paul to play as a mezzala or roam centrally more, or alongside Fred if Pogba leaves. If wanted, he can also easily operate as a lone holding midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond and be able to screen the back line comfortably, whilst remaining an option for all of the attacking players ahead of him. He doesn’t really have any significant weaknesses.

“He is a very complete footballer who still has a lot of development potential. He has incredible dynamics, understanding of the game and is not yet at the end of his development.”

Marco Rose when asked about Denis Zakaria, 2019

Boubakary Soumare (Lille OSC)

All data in bold indicates the highest statistics amongst the players in the article

Passing Accuracy90.8%
Long Passes2.01
Dribbles Completed0.97
Total Duels Won6.81
Interceptions3.27
Possession Losses(In own half)6.81(2.78)
Ball Recoveries(In opp half)7.78(4.72)
Aerial Duels Won0.77
Defensive Duels Won2.57
Key Passes0.81
Progressive Runs1.18
Final Third Passes8.41
Forward Passes(% of total)11.41(24.73%)
League Stats Only, stat names highlighted you can click on to read more about
All statistics courtesy of WyScout and are per 90

Top 10 Rankings amongst Ligue 1 midfielders, >14 league apps (data courtesy of WhoScored)

  • 7th for Accurate Short Passes
  • 9th for Total Passes

For the last midfielder that we will look at that we have been linked with, it is Lille’s Boubakary Soumare. At 21 years old, he is the joint youngest of the prospective signings. He is 6ft 2in and has a current market value of £22.05 million. All things considered, he is probably the most raw of the players, but with great potential to grow into. He often plays on the left of a double pivot, as many of these players do, with vast skill on the ball. During the game, he will try and get on the ball as much as possible as most of the teams build up goes through him as he is very comfortable playing balls all over the field and is very composed on the ball. When the team is in possession, he often will roam around the field in search of space to get on the ball. He regularly drops between the centre backs to receive the ball and then advance the play by bringing it up himself or passing between the lines. When he is pressed, he is very calm under the pressure and will use his build to hold the player off and make a pass or dribble past them. His vision is excellent and is very comfortable making the line-breaking passes into the attackers, and dribbling from deep to join them. He ranks in the top 10 in the league for both accurate short passes, and total passes, emphasising how much he dictates what goes on during his sides. Defensively, he is a very good tackler, and if people get past him he is great at recovery slide tackles. His defensive positional awareness is also good for how experienced he is, and will improve with age. He makes more progressive runs than most of the other options as he looks to get forward so much. He doesn’t make as many tackles and interceptions compared to the other players, but he can improve in these departments as his defensive IQ is solid. What he lacks in this department, he makes up for in flair and creativity. To conclude, he has huge potential but in all reality probably more as a central midfielder as opposed to a defensive midfielder. If he were to join, he would be best suited to playing on the right of a pivot alongside a more defensive minded player like McTominay or Matic, giving him the freedom to play as a roaming playmaker more.

 “He has an incredible talent for me, in his age category, he is one of the best talents in Europe.

Gérard Lopez, President of LOSC when asked about Boubakary Soumare

Florian Grillitsch (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim)

All data in bold indicates the highest statistics amongst the players in the article

Passing Accuracy89.3%
Long Passes2.78
Dribbles Completed0.74
Total Duels Won9.73
Interceptions5.33
Possession Losses(In own half)7.84(3.29)
Ball Recoveries(In opp half)9.97(3.15)
Aerial Duels Won1.02
Defensive Duels Won4.50
Key Passes0.83
Progressive Runs1.25
Final Third Passes6.4
Forward Passes(% of total)10.76(20.32%)
League Stats Only, stat names highlighted you can click on to read more about
All statistics courtesy of WyScout and are per 90

Top 10 Rankings amongst Bundesliga midfielders, >15 league apps (data courtesy of WhoScored)

  • 1st in Accurate Free Kicks
  • 4th for Total Passes
  • 4th for Accurate Short Passes
  • 4th for Passing Accuracy
  • 5th for Accurate Long Balls
  • 5th for Assists
  • 6th Most Fouled
  • 7th Most Accurate Crosser
  • 8th for Successful Dribbles
  • 8th for Long Key Passes
  • 9th for Crosses Blocked
  • 10th for Successful Tackles

For the final midfielder, we take a look at someone I haven’t seen us been linked with this season, but after looking in detail, he would be a nice fit for our side; Florian Grillitsch of Hoffenheim. The 24 year old Austrian is 6ft 2in and has a market value of £18 million with a £22 million release clause. This season he has played 23 matches; 16 as a defensive midfielder, 6 as a central midfielder and one as an attacking midfielder. He usually plays as either a lone defensive midfielder almost as a regista, or as the right man in a double pivot. He has an excellent first touch, which is hugely advantageous in helping him break the press, alongside his accomplished dribbling skills. His style of play is very similar to that of Carrick’s, even in the way that his impact on his team is often underrated. One of his noticeable traits is his ability to start attacks from deep after receiving the ball from the centre backs. He often slots in between the 2 centre backs when the team are being kept in their own half, and will then help the team play out from the back. He has a high level of game IQ, and uses this to decide whether to maintain his position deep or move forward, depending on the in-game situation. In the Hoffenheim side, he is the most mobile midfielder, so uses his pace to defend the opposition wingers on the counter attack, and he is not scared to use his physical prowess to dominate them. He started out as a ball winning midfielder only as a younger player, but has slowly matured his play-making abilities, all whilst keeping up the defensive numbers, headlined by his impressive 5.33 interceptions a game. He will rotate through the midfield, to find space to get on the ball, beating the oppositions press by positioning himself between the oppositions midfield and attacking lines. He is a very accurate passer, at 89.3%, with most of his passes being short, simple ones. However, if there are long passes, often switches, he will make them, averaging 2.78 completed per 90, or by making passes into the final third, breaking the defensive lines. If he was to join United, he would be best used as the right man in a double pivot, where he can perform his deep lying play-maker role and stay deep as opposed to the partner in midfield, probably Pogba, who could then surge forward on attacks as a mezzala or roaming play-maker role that he would suit. Grillitsch could then stay behind to cover the back line, and protect the space in behind his full backs, similarly to how he currently plays for his club. In the games where a 4-4-2 diamond is preferred, he would be more than able to play as the lone DM in a number roles, protecting the back line and progressing the ball from deep.

“Florian is an exceptionally gifted footballer.”

Hoffenheim Sporting Director Alexander Rosen, when asked about Florian Grillitsch

Conclusion

To round out the entire discussion, there is no right or wrong answer as to who the correct player to go for is. Thomas Partey, despite being a fantastic player and a great fit, looks an unlikely move as he nears a new contract at Atletico. If United want a player who is purely a destroyer and ball winner, then Ndidi will be the man. He is Premier League proven, and has some of the best pure defensive statistics across Europe. However, if they want someone who could operate on the ball more, and be more involved in the build up, whilst still keeping up the defensive numbers, the Zakaria or Grillitsch would be the way to go; Grillitsch if Pogba stays, and Zakaria if Pogba leaves the club this summer, only because of the sides they naturally play on. Soumare has an abundance of talent, but is probably not what we need at the moment in a holding role. Declan Rice remains the wildcard, after massively improving this season, as he would be a shrewd purchase, despite not quite matching up to the other players here, as Ole could sway Declan’s way as he continues to try and bring English players in, despite maybe lacking some of the on ball ability in comparison to his peers.Lots of our transfer activity does depend on what Pogba decides to do. All in all, there are a few very strong candidates that we are being linked with, some more suited to our style than others, and even some midfielders better equipped and cheaper than the ones being rumoured.

Let us know in the comments or on twitter who you think is the right man for United!

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