Is Man Utd's under-fire midfield REALLY worse than their title rivals?

Roy Keane’s criticism of Manchester United’s midfield was RIGHT… Title rivals City and Liverpool are blessed with more quality in the middle, and Chelsea’s brilliant duo of Jorginho and Kante are peerless

  • Man United’s central midfielders have been criticised for lacking ‘creativity’
  • Paul Pogba is arguably United’s only midfielder who’d get in sides of title rivals
  • Bruno Fernandes is top class too but plays further up the pitch
  • Champions City are blessed with an array of talent in centre midfield
  • Liverpool have huge experience in Thiago, Jordan Henderson and James Milner
  • Chelsea’s Jorginho and N’Golo Kante dominated Europe last season

It’s early days, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing has given the club and its fans a dose of giddy excitement, but already there’s a sense Manchester United are missing a vital ingredient to challenge for the title this season. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been warned before that he could not possibly win the league with his current options in central midfield, and it only took two games in the new season for Roy Keane to shine the torch on the lack of ‘quality and creativity’ in the middle of the park after United dropped points at Southampton last Sunday. 

There’s no question that having great central midfielders is fundamental for any title challenge. Think Keane and Ince, Vieira and Petit, Lampard and Makelele or Silva and Toure. Trying to compete for the title without those types of players is a bit like trying to win a game of Monopoly without owning Park Lane or Mayfair.

Man United were accused of lacking creativity in midfield after being held by Southampton, with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes unable to secure the much-needed three points

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tends to play two defensive-minded midfielders with Fred (left), Scott McTominay (right) or Matic seemingly his preferred options behind Fernandes and Pogba

Man United’s central midfield options

  • Paul Pogba
  • Bruno Fernandes 
  • Scott McTominay
  • Fred
  • Nemanja Matic
  • Juan Mata
  • Donny van de Beek

Solskjaer won’t be too concerned by one bad result but must be aware that he has a conundrum to solve in midfield. 

Many United fans questioned his decision to play two defensive-minded midfielders against a team like Southampton, who were expected to sit back for much of the game. 

There’s a feeling that most would like Solskjaer to be braver and sacrifice one of the holding midfielders in Fred, Scott McTominay or Nemanja Matic and play Paul Pogba alongside one of them, with Bruno Fernandes further forward, to give them more creativity in the middle of the park.

Whether Solskjaer sticks or twists, only time will tell. What is far less ambiguous is that United’s midfield presents a problem. 

Keane isn’t the only one who fears United are lacking something in midfield. His former United team-mate Gary Neville has already expressed similar reservations this season.

But how exactly does United’s under-fire midfield stack up against that at their title rivals? Sportsmail takes a closer look…

Few managers in the world are as fortunate as Pep Guardiola when it comes to having quality midfielders at their disposal.

Not only is Guardiola blessed with an array of midfield talent in his squad, but there is a wonderful balance about the types of players he has to choose from. 

Fernandinho, who’s been one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League for years although is now , has Rodri for competition, with Guardiola tending to rotate them throughout the season. 

When it comes to creativity, there are certainly no concerns about Guardiola’s men, with Kevin De Bruyne – arguably the best passer in the world – and Phil Foden among City’s ranks.

Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan provide Man City defensive cover and an attacking threat

Kevin De Bruyne is widely considered the best central midfielder in the Premier League

Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish are also capable of dropping back and playing on the right or left side of a midfield three as they have both done already this season.

And then there’s Ilkay Gundogan, a box-to-box midfielder with an impressive number of goals to his name last season. So, Guardiola essentially has all bases covered.  

The same cannot be said for United, who have three creatively-limited midfielders playing the same role in Fred, McTominay and Matic, and only Fernandes and Pogba as viable attack-minded options, given Donny van de Beek is an outcast and Juan Mata appears well past his best.


The departure of Georginio Wijnaldum has certainly been felt at Liverpool, who have not yet signed a replacement for him.

The industrious and skillful Wijnaldum was an important component of the Liverpool machine and was viewed by Jurgen Klopp as one of the most influential players in his team. 

That being said, Liverpool still boast a number of quality and experienced players in midfield, none more so than Jordan Henderson, who is a reliable performer and a real leader for Klopp’s men. 

Jordan Henderson (left) and James Milner (right) give Liverpool a lot of experience in midfield

Thiago is a class operator and will be key for Liverpool this season if he can stay fit

Similarly to City, Liverpool also have great versatility about their midfield players.

Fabinho is their main defensive midfield option, while Henderson, James Milner and Naby Keita can also provide Klopp with stability and energy in the middle of the park.

Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are ball-playing midfielders, who are also capable of playing the box-to-box role.

Thiago is one of the world’s best deep-lying playmakers and will be vital for Liverpool this season if he can stay fit. And if that isn’t enough, Klopp also has exciting youngsters Harvey Elliot and Curtis Jones, who can add dynamism and flair to his midfield.

Bar Pogba and Fernandes, it’s unlikely any of United’s other midfielders would challenge for a place in this Liverpool team.


You know you have a great midfield when not one but two of your players from that area are in the discussion to win the UEFA Player of the Year.

Jorginho and N’Golo Kante both beat the likes of Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski to be included on the final three-man shortlist.

So that tells you the kind of form those midfielders have been in over the past 12 months. 

The Chelsea pair complement each other, have struck up a wonderful partnership and are arguably the best central midfield duo in the Premier League. 

It therefore speaks volumes for Mateo Kovacic’s ability that he still manages to get regular minutes in Chelsea’s midfield. 

There aren’t many better midfield duos than Jorginho (left) and N’Golo Kante in the world

Mateo Kovacic (far right) is an excellent player who can rotate with Jorginho and Kante 

The Croatian is wonderful on the ball and a top-quality midfield player that just highlights Chelsea strength in depth. 

Thomas Tuchel has a number of other players he could use in central midfield, like Trevoh Chalobah and Mason Mount, though he prefers them to operate in defence and out wide respectively.

Hakim Ziyech is more often than not deployed in an attacking-midfield role but can also play in a deeper position, with the same true of Kai Havertz. Tuchel has Ruben Loftus-Cheek waiting in the wings as well, but such is Chelsea’s prowess in that area, he can’t even get a sniff. If needed, Reece James is also talented enough to play in midfield – indeed that is where many see his future.

There’s no argument – while Fernandes could challenge for a spot further forward in the European champions’ XI, Manchester United don’t have any central midfielders of the ilk of Jorginho and Kante, bar Pogba. 

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