Manchester United’s struggles with finding balance in midfield have been well-documented over the past few seasons. Their best and most high-profile player, Paul Pogba, is yet to be given a role that brings out the best of his game without sacrificing the stability of the team, while Nemanja Matic, who had a good debut season, turns 30 this year and is currently injured. Fred, an expensive new recruit from Shakhtar Donetsk, is only two games into his United career, while Andreas Pereira is adapting to a completely new position. The deputies – Ander Herrera, Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini, all have their limitations. Midfield has been the club’s problem area for a while now, and although hopes were kindled that Pogba could transplant his World Cup-winning form to his club side after the Leicester game, those hopes were dashed on the cliffs of Brighton, as United’s midfield struggled to gain a foothold against the Seagulls.
Pereira completely isolated
Andreas Pereira had a superlative league debut for United, calmly knitting the side together in the opening day win over Leicester. His natural position is that of an attacking midfielder, but the Brazilian has adapted to a deeper role in midfield to force his way into the United side. Against Brighton, however, he had a torrid game and was hooked at half-time with United trailing by two goals. However, this was not all his fault as his fellow midfielders Fred and Pogba failed to provide him with any support. His touch maps from both games will illustrate this –
Of course, Pereira only played 46 minutes against Brighton, but even then, it is notable that Pereira received the ball in far deeper positions than against Leicester. Brighton’s pressing was one reason for this, but another was the fact that Fred, and most often Pogba, would be too far up the pitch to offer Pereira a short passing option, leaving him to drop deeper to get away from Brighton’s attackers.
This did not work, as in the absence of support from his fellow midfielders, Pereira would be isolated and Brighton’s targeted press forced him into conceding possession in dangerous areas.
This lack of influence on the game as well as a two-goal deficit led to his substitution at half-time, but he was not the sole player at fault, and his removal led to further issues.
Pogba too far up the pitch
Paul Pogba was coming off a man-of-the-match performance against Leicester, and it was widely expected that he would take the game by the scruff of the neck. However, the match largely passed him by, notwithstanding his late penalty, and this was largely down to his extremely poor positioning.
While playing a three-man midfield is supposed to get the best out of the Frenchman, it does not mean that he can spend the entire game in the opposition half. Pogba, Fred and Pereira worked well as a trio against Leicester, offering short passing options to each other and allowing the ball to progress upfield at a generally quick tempo. However, on the south coast, Pogba was frequently in Brighton’s half even when the ball was with Lindelof or Bailly, meaning that Pereira usually had nobody to quickly lay the ball off to in order to bypass Brighton’s press. This was a pattern repeated throughout the first half, as the images above have shown.
This created problems elsewhere too. Juan Mata, playing on the right flank, was often forced to come deeper to get on the ball in the absence of a meaningful structure in midfield. This meant that Brighton immediately had a 2v1 on Ashley Young on their left flank, and the first goal came from this exact scenario, where Young was outnumbered and unable to prevent Solly March from crossing the ball into the box for Glenn Murray to convert.
The second half began with Pereira and Mata being replaced by Lingard and Rashford, which meant that Pogba was now required to drop deep himself, as there was nobody to supply the ball to him. This is again not where Pogba is best utilised, and the introduction of Marouane Fellaini only added to the congestion in midfield. United went the predictable long-ball route in the second half, and while Fellaini did cause some problems to the opposition, a far better solution would have been to simply ask Pogba to play closer to his midfield colleagues so that passing moves could be built up at a quick tempo.
Manchester United were woeful across the board, with mistakes from the centre-backs, as well as some poor finishing, letting Brighton win this fixture for the second time in a row. However, there were structural and spacial issues in midfield that were the proximate cause for most of United’s troubles. United need to sort out these issues as soon as possible, as a trip by Tottenham Hotspur to Old Trafford looms large on the horizon; they are the perfect team to take advantage of midfield struggles, and United’s campaign could suddenly be heading towards panic stations if they are allowed to do so.