Manchester United were the Premier League’s form team
after the restart, with the acquisition of Bruno Fernandes providing impetus, creativity,
and apparently rejuvenating Paul Pogba.
United have stepped up their transfer game of late, with some astute, if expensive, acquisitions
like Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Harry Maguire – while Ed Woodward’s reputation
hasn’t been entirely rehabilitated, the signs are good and United appear to be thinking
On the pitch, the attacking trident of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial
has been exceptional, and United look equipped to take on anyone going forwards.
At the back, though, things are less clear.
Maguire has been good since joining from Leicester City and retains Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s
confidence despite a few high-profile errors.
A long-term partner, though, is a must, someone who can match Maguire’s proactivity and
A left-sided centre back would be ideal, given that Maguire is right-footed; he could then
move to his more natural spot.
Both full back positions are solid, and this is unlikely to be a priority.
Nor is the goalkeeping situation.
Dean Henderson is the heir apparent to De Gea, and it should be a matter of when not
if that succession takes place.
Ahead of the back four, Nemanja Matic offers stability and leadership but he’s ageing
and positional acumen can only make up for physical decline for so long.
Fred, a buzzing, pressing, recycling kind of midfielder seems the wrong fit alongside
United probably want more presence and aggression in that position.
Scott McTominany may be the long-term successor, but while Matic does less overall defensive
work by volume, he still makes more per 90 interceptions and ball recoveries than McTominay
and also offers more as a progressive passer from deep.
With that in mind, here are three areas Manchester United could still improve.
Our first suggestion isn’t actually a pure Matic replacement, but there’s good reason
to look at AZ Alkmar’s Teun Koopmeiners.
Only 22 but already captain of AZ, who finished a curtailed Eredivisie season in second, he’s
a defensive midfielder by preference, but filled in ably at centre back.
This points to his defensive credibility but also offers versatility.
He’s positionally aware, a good one on one defender, and possesses a sumptuous left foot
as his assist for Oussama Idrissi’s goal against Ajax in March showed.
An alternative who brings more in defence and less in passing is 26 year-old Dominik
Kohr, the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder.
Last season he made two interceptions and won 2.4 tackles per 90, as well as 7.8 successful
He’s a busy defender in typical Bundesliga fashion, but that makes him good at thwarting
He’s used to playing a double pivot ahead of a three-man back line, which would require
Our pick, though, is Ibrahim Sangare.
The 22 year old, 6ft 2 Toulouse midfielder is a close statistical match for Matic in
He’s a good passer, with 5.1 final third and 6.2 progressive passes per 90, although
his pass accuracy is lower than Matic’s because he’s been encouraged to go longer
in a direct Toulouse team.
Defensively, he wins 2.8 tackles and makes 1.5 interceptions per 90, as well as 7.7 successful
pressures – this marks him out as one of Ligue 1’s outstanding defensive midfielders.
Interceptions are really the only area where Matic significantly betters Sangare, but United
are able to control games and press better than Toulouse – and there’s every reason
to suspect that Sangare will improve across all facets of the game.
Right wing is a position that United are clearly shopping for, and although Greenwood has had
an exceptional season, he’s arguably a striker and adds less creatively than Solskjaer might
One suggestion is the versatile Calvin Stengs, the 21 year-old AZ right winger.
A left-footed player who can also function as a striker or a 10, Stengs got five goals
and seven assists in a shortened Eredivisie season.
While Stengs is perfectly capable of beating his man and pulling back crosses, he also
likes to tuck infield and play through balls across the pitch with his left.
He’d be an interesting, multi-faceted attacker who could rotate with others in United’s
An alternative, less developed prospect but one with huge potential is Bodo/Glimt’s
Jens Petter Hauge.
The 20 year-old has scored seven and managed six assists in only 11 games and, also a Norwegian
youth international, might relish the chance to work with Solksjaer.
His touch and creativity are already excellent.
Predominantly right-footed, he can play on the left or right, and would fit United’s
expressed desire to bring younger, quicker players into the squad.
The Athletic’s pick for this position, though, is the unarguable one: Jadon Sancho.
United remain at a transfer impasse with Borussia Dortmund, with sporting director Michael Zorc
insisting that the winger will remain at the club for the current season.
Still, he's the obvious choice, and if United are able to break the negotiating deadlock
he’d be an outstanding addition.
Despite the huge proposed fee, Sancho is already an elite attacker.
There is always a premium payable for English players, but United would be tying down someone
who is probably going to be the world’s best in his position for many years to come.
Assuming that United will ultimately want their captain Maguire to play in his favoured
right centre back spot, a more defensively-minded left-sided colleague is needed, albeit one
comfortable in possession.
Jordan Torunarigha of Hertha Berlin is a strong prospect: his passing is good, with 86% completion
overall and 82.9% on passes over 25 yards, and last season he made 1.9 interceptions,
2.4 blocks, and 5.7 clearances, all per 90.
He’s tall, quick, strong, and left-footed, and mostly plays on the left of a back four,
though he can play left back.
He’d probably be expensive and has had injury issues, though none last season.
Another suggestion is Freiburg’s Keven Schlotterbeck, who played last season on loan at Union Berlin.
At 23 years old, he has development potential and was outstanding as Union exceeded expectations
in their first ever Bundesliga season.
He’s defensively very solid, with seven clearances, 1.8 tackles won, and 3.3 blocks
Union play a direct game, so his passing completion is only 81% but just under half of those were
long ball – something that wouldn’t be the case at United.
Price and a potential lack of experience could hinder this, but Schlotterbeck was one of
the Bundesliga’s best left-sided defenders last season and is worth considering.
Our pick, though, is another Bundesliga player, Mainz’s Moussa Niakhate.
At 24, he’s established himself at Mainz, a club that has an excellent scouting history
- especially in France - and has captained the team.
He’s a good defensive anchor, not getting forwards too much, but he has excellent ability
on the ball too.
Last season he made 6.5 clearances, almost three tackles or interceptions won, and 1.6
blocks, all per 90.
A combination of good awareness and body position makes him a good last line of defence, which
would suit United as it Maguire who’s tasked with progressing