Henrikh Mkhitaryan are Juan Mata two top class options to play as the No. 10. Paul Pogba likes to bring the ball forward from deep to play in advanced positions and Ander Herrera has only recently been transformed from being a playmaker that gets forward to a scrapper that sits back.
It is hoped that Andreas Pereira can become a first team regular too, and while he may boast sharp elbows rather than a deftness of touch, Marouane Fellaini is always on hand to bully opponents as the most forward-placed midfielder in games where breaking the lock is more effective than trying to pick it.
Following the signings of Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof, the area of scarcity within Jose Mourinho’s squad lies deeper, behind the likes of Pogba and Herrera, in a position he only has one option to cover at present with any expertise: 35-year-old Michael Carrick.
United’s summer search for a holding midfielder
The idea of replacing the Englishman with Nemanja Matic was questionable, and after catching Chelsea with their pants down to beat the Blues to Lukaku it’s unlikely that last season’s Premier League champions would allow the Serbian to leave for Old Trafford.
A converted winger who became a mobile enforcer at Benfica, he is more of a cross between Fellaini and Herrera than a ready-made replacement for Carrick. Former Real Madrid right-back turned Monaco midfield general Fabinho was touted as a potential option, but while reports in Europe claimed United were close to signing the 23-year-old, journalists in Manchester dismissed any interest in the Brazilian.
Soon Eric Dier was back in the headlines. A key player for Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur, he can play at centre-back and as a defensive midfielder, but would be prohibitively expensive – assuming Daniel Levy would even entertain any bids for a 23-year-old the club want to keep.
Which brings the rumour mill round to AS Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan, the least suitable option yet for complementing and completing what United already have in central midfield, but that’s not to say that the Belgian is not a quality player.
What type of midfielder is Nainggolan?
Last season, Nainggolan was one of the top performers in Serie A marauding into the final third as the most advanced midfielder, playing behind Edin Dzeko with Mohamed Salah cutting in from the right. He scored 11 goals and pitched in with five assists after bagging two strikes and adding an assist for Belgium at Euro 2016.
When it came to winning back the ball and putting pressure on his opponents, the Belgian made 37 and won 57 tackles to get up in the faces of Roma’s rivals. His eye for a pass saw him slot through nine successful through balls, equal to Alexis Sanchez and Neymar’s tallies in the Premier League and La Liga, respectively.
Yet previously, the Belgian has played a deeper, more combative role as a central midfielder, backed up by Daniele De Rossi and supported by Kevin Strootman at the heart of Rudi Garcia’s team. For his country, he tends to play in front of Axel Witsel, who is usually the designated water carrier for the Red Devils.
How does Nainggolan compare with what United already have?
Naingollan has played his best football for Belgium, Roma, and Cagliari prior to his move to the Italian capital, as more of a box-to-box presence before moving further forward to play behind Edin Dzeko last season.
Jose Mourinho already has players he must try and fit into these roles at Old Trafford, and it’s unlikely that the 29-year-old would be signed to replace Paul Pogba as the team’s driving presence from deep in central midfielder, or to compete with Mata and Mkhitaryan, unless their futures were in far more jeopardy than has been reported.
Would he be an upgrade to Ander Herrera? In a side-by-side comparison as individual footballers, probably, but the Spaniard’s job has been to support the players around him and knit the team together, not surge forward to score more goals and be another focal point in a squad that has often struggled through having too many cooks as it is.
If Naingollan were signed and unleashed in place of the combative former Atheltic Club playmaker, that would only leave Pogba and United exposed with no covering presence in midfield. The Frenchman isn’t going to stop being the protagonist in the middle to give the Belgian the platform to shine in his place.
Another individual in need of other players for balance
The purchases of Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku, and even the capture of Zlatan Ibrahimovic last year, all point towards a transfer strategy predicated on the theory that by bringing more elite players to Old Trafford, success will follow.
In summers gone by, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has boasted about the money available to the club, and hinted that they wish to go out and buy the best and most marketable names in the business, from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to Neymar, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben.
Ultimately, the idea is to get in as many top players and figure out how to fit them all together at a later date. Manchester United have opted for their own version of the Real Madrid Galactico policy that brought the likes of David Beckham, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane to the Bernabeu.
That project ran into trouble the moment that their club president Florentino Perez overlooked the value of the commercially unremarkable but extremely important Claude Makelele. Failing to find a suitable successor to Carrick may end up being an error on United’s part as costly as the one that saw Madrid, as Zidane once put it, take the engine out of their Bentley and sell it in exchange for more gold paint.