Frenkie de Jong is not the only man who can fix the Man United midfield… Erik ten Hag has cut-price options in Fabian Ruiz and Youri Tielemans, Ruben Neves has proved he can deliver in the top flight and even Fred is finally firing on all cylinders
- Erik ten Hag has made his former protege Frenkie de Jong his No 1 target
- But the Barcelona midfielder is reluctant to make the move to Manchester
- Ten Hag has quality players to turn to but risks missing out if he waits too long
- Unless the new boss is happy to mould members of his squad into midfield role
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag can have few complaints over the club’s commitment to land his No 1 transfer target, Frenkie de Jong, this summer.
United have pulled out all the stops, dispatching club chiefs Richard Arnold and John Murtough, to Spain to negotiate with Barcelona over a transfer for De Jong and they have concluded a complex deal worth £71.5M.
The one problem appears to be De Jong himself. Despite Ten Hag’s desire to bring his former protege and compatriot to Manchester, the player seems reluctant.
Frenkie de Jong is being shopped by Barcelona as they need to reduce their wage bill
According to a report in the Spanish outlet, Sport, he dislikes Manchester and believes the club is run erratically. There is also the £17M De Jong is owed in wages by Barcelona, which he may want to pocket before leaving Spain.
Ten Hag has made clear that De Jong is central to his plans at United, as he seeks possession and control in the frenzy of the Premier League.
In the Dutch style, the manager wants a holding midfield player who dominates the game through his ability on the ball, not his destructive qualities off it, even if that means assigning a minder to play alongside him in the middle of the park.
De Jong’s strengths are his ability to retain possession in tight areas and to move his team up the pitch through unerringly accurate passing and dynamic dribbles and carries.
Frenkie de Jong (left) reportedly has no interest in joining Erik ten Hag at Manchester United
The boss has clearly not given up the pursuit.
‘We are looking for a player who can play in the holding [deep-lying] midfield position,’ Ten Hag told journalists on the club’s tour of Australia. ‘There are not many in that position capable of the level we demand.’
So, if not De Jong, then who? What alternatives do United have if the Dutch maestro refuses to re-join Ten Hag in Manchester.
The Napoli midfielder possesses exactly the attributes Ten Hag is looking for in De Jong.
One of the qualities that makes De Jong so attractive is his ‘press resistance’. He rarely gives the ball away, and Ruiz, 26, who has 15 caps for Spain, is very similar.
In 32 appearances in Serie A last season, scoring seven goals and assisting four, Ruiz made even more passes under pressure than De Jong achieved for Barcelona. He was more likely to keep possession in a tackle and was less prone to mis-control. Both players posted a pass competition rate of around 90 per cent.
Napoli’s deep-lying midfielder Fabian Ruiz has all the qualities Ten Hag is looking for
If Ten Hag wants someone to look after the ball, then he can rely on Ruiz, and the Spaniard is also progressive in his passing.
Added to that, he only has one year left on his contract, and has reportedly refused to sign an extension. In January, Newcastle tabled a £42m bid for Ruiz, but Napoli are looking for around £26M now.
The Spaniard is a less accomplished dribbler that the Dutchman, who has the ability to ghost past players and open up space.
But Ruiz does carry the ball well and loves to burst forward into enemy territory, creating opportunities for others.
The Wolves star has attracted interest from Manchester United before and according to Talksport the club’s hierarchy are having another look, now.
It is easy to see the attraction. Neves, 25, is super reliable in possession, but also capable of some magic moments and highly adaptable.
Under Nuno Espirito Santo, the Portuguese was asked to sit deep and shield the space in front of the three central defenders. He enabled Wolves to gain control in midfield through his quality on the ball, but in addition, he is good in the tackle and a willing presser.
Ruben Neves of Wolves has shown impressive quality and adaptability in the Premier League
Neves’ stronger defensive game could even allow the manager to go with a three-man midfield, rather than the ‘double pivot’ he is experimenting with pre season.
And in possession, Neves almost never mis-controls a pass and successfully receives the ball from an eye-opening 96 per cent of passes, according to FBREF.
Since Bruno Lage took over at Molineux, Neves has been asked to play in a more advanced role, which has allowed him to demonstrate a different skill set.
Last season, he dribbled and carried the ball more often than before, although he didn’t match De Jong in terms of progression.
The Portuguese has attracted interest from the Manchester United hierarchy before
The Dutchman was twice as likely to carry the ball into the top third of the pitch and into the penalty area than the Portuguese, but then he was playing for a Barcelona team that dominated most opponents.
Wolves are willing to sell the Portugal midfielder this summer, as he has two years left on his contract and he is unlikely to sign a new one as things stand.
However, Wolves previously indicated they wanted around £70M for Neves, similar to Jong, and ten Hag may not share their valuation.
Often considered a box-to-box No 8, Tielemans could sit in for United and pull the strings of the attacking talent in front of him.
Some of Ten Hag’s love for De Jong comes from his belief that the Barca man ‘makes the forwards better’.
Tielemans, 25, has an all-round midfield game and if he was paired with Fred or Scott McTominay in the 4-2-3-1 formation Ten Hag has favoured pre-season, United could have both a physical and technical grip in midfield.
Youri Tielemans is impressive with and without the ball and could anchor United’s midfield
The Leicester City man is quite happy to impose himself on the opponent. He made more tackles last season than any of the alternatives to De Jong considered here, with the exception of Fred. He puts himself about, is good one-on-one and places his body on the line when needed.
He is also comfortable making passes under pressure and happy to receive the ball in tight areas.
Tielemans has not been as precise in possession as De Jong or Ruiz, making 82 per cent of his passes last season, despite hitting relatively few long balls for Leicester, but accuracy always suffers the further forward a player operates.
And he is less dynamic in possession, attempting fewer dribbles and carries particularly at the top end of the pitch.
It is these types of runs that open the game up for the forwards since defensive midfielders and defenders have to deal with them, opening up space elsewhere.That said, Tielemans is into the final year of his contract and could be available for less than £30M, which would be value for money.
If United cannot entice De Jong to Manchester, they already have a number of solutions in house.
Christian Eriksen, 30, is one of them. A proven performer in the Premier League, he is one of only two players to have provided 10 or more assists in four consecutive top flight seasons, the other being United legend, David Beckham.
And with 66 assists overall, he sits second in the Premier League table, behind Kevin De Bruyne.
Christian Eriksen has proved himself as an attacking midfielder, but he could play deeper
Not surprisingly, when Eriksen signed on a free transfer following a wonderful cameo at Brentford last season, after his recovery from a cardiac arrest during Euro 2020, he was seen as an attacking midfield option.
But the Dane has the versatility and ability to adapt to a deeper role to bring greater calm to last season’s chaotic midfield.
Ten Hag has spoken before about adapting to the players he has at both Ajax and United. He is a pragmatist.
And responding to questions about the challenge of bringing De Jong to Old Trafford, he raised the possibility of shuffling his existing pack.
‘We have to deal with the players in our squad now and we will develop one in that position,’ suggested ten Hag.
Ten Hag has to decide how long to wait on de Jong if his Dutch compatriot refuses to move
The two men know each other after Eriksen trained with Ajax following his cardiac arrest.
The former Spurs and Inter Milan midfielder does not match De Jong’s stats for passing accuracy and press resistance, but then he tends to play higher up the field and his role is to create opportunities, which always brings greater risk for higher reward.
Ten Hag has made clear he is at Old Trafford for a three-year project. He may decide he has enough talent in the building to start the campaign, rather than spend big money on his second or third choice.
The surprise contender in the list to replace De Jong is Fred. When Ten Hag said he could mould a player within his ranks could he actually have been thinking of the Brazilian?
Prior to United’s pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia that looked extremely unlikely. Fred played in the role last season and was unable to exert any kind of control.
United mustered just 52 per cent possession, their lowest figure in Premier League history, according to Total Football Analysis, which is the reason why Ten Hag declared midfield a priority in this summer’s transfer market.
Last season, Fred appeared to be part of the problem, but he has been excellent in pre season
The Brazilian has started each match so far, alongside McTominay, in the midfield holding roles, and where his high-energy game appeared to add to the chaos last season, it is now rewarded in a more structured approach.
Ten Hag has praised Fred’s attitude and the impact he has those around him. But given the manager’s desire to build through midfield, it is Ten Hag’s remarks about Fred’s style of play that stand out.
‘In the moment he is playing in the role as connecter, defending to offence,’ said Ten Hag.
‘He is playing the role quite well. I am satisfied with his performance, with his improvement. I think he can even be better. I will support him in that.’
There is no doubt Fred and United have been impressive so far, scoring 11 goals in beating Liverpool in Bangkok and Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace in Melbourne.
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