Erik ten Hag is facing a major rebuild at Manchester United but has clearly identified one key area for improvement this summer. Reports continue to link the Red Devils with a move for Barcelona playmaker Frenkie de Jong, although they are reportedly set to face stiff competition from rivals Manchester City.
Xavi has publicly dimissed rumours linking the Netherlands international with a summer exit, but the La Liga giants are said to be open to a sale due to their financial troubles. United’s appointment of ten Hag has also fuelled speculation, with the duo working together for two years at Ajax and helping the club reach the Champions League semi-final in 2019.
The Red Devils will almost certainly be in the market for at least one midfielder this summer, with Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba all set to depart. Talks have reportedly been held over a deal for de Jong in the region of £75 million, but United’s failure to secure a top-four finish could yet prove costly in negotiations.
United’s midfield has been in need of major surgery for several seasons now, with the much maligned ‘McFred’ partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay frequently facing criticism. Bruno Fernandes’ impact in recent months has lessened following a sensational start, while successive managers have failed to coax consistency out of Pogba.
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De Jong is an ambitious target who could yet turn down an approach in favour of remaining with Barcelona or securing Champions League football elsewhere. But ten Hag’s decision to prioritise an all-action midfielder will be music to the ears of club legend Paul Scholes, who has long insisted any future signing in that position has ‘to be capable of doing everything’.
Speaking in November 2019, Scholes told BT Sport: “There’s a lot made of midfielders nowadays, are they a holding midfielder or an attacking midfielder which does my head in a little bit. As a good midfielder you need to be able to do a bit of everything.
“As a central midfield player, especially at Man United, you have to be capable of doing everything. You have to be able to help your defence, you have to help in attack. It’s not just about sitting and being a holding midfield player. It’s not just about getting forward. You have to have a bit of everything as players I played with had.”
De Jong is more than a defensive midfielder, with the 25-year-old renowned for taking charge in possession and fashioning opportunities. The former Ajax star has registered four goals and five assists this season, and would offer a more incisive presence from the midfield anchor role.
United have also been linked with Leeds United star Kalvin Phillips, although it could prove challenging to convince the England international to make the controversial switch despite potential relegation. But much like de Jong, the 26-year-old proved at Euro 2020 that he could provide more thrust than typically expected of a ‘defensive midfielder’.
For too long, the tired debate over United’s midfield has focused on the limitations of their defensive options or their struggles in the final third. The links to both de Jong and Phillips proves ten Hag is keen to move away from this argument, and find a combination that is effective in all areas.