New transfer window, same transfer needs: Manchester United require another defensive midfielder.

Erik ten Hag has spent the better part of £200million this summer on three starters who will make his team more capable of playing the transition-based football he desires.

However, if the United manager wants to ensure his chances of success in 2023-24, he could do with another midfielder who can help Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes.

Acquiring such player(s) will be a little more difficult for a club dealing with financial fair play (FFP) issues and less than a week to negotiate a deal.

What does Ten Hag want from a central midfielder?

Following the failed pursuit of Frenkie de Jong in 2022, Ten Hag has changed tact in what he wants. The signings of Casemiro and Mason Mount in back-to-back summers have led to the manager talking up his team’s potential as the best transition-based side in the world. He constantly used the word “dynamic” in pre-season and ideally wants midfielders comfortable playing on the half-turn who can provide defensive intensity when out of possession and creative ambition when using the ball.

A hamstring injury to Mount — which is expected to rule him out until the end of the September international break — may lead Ten Hag to change the 4-1-4-1 shape that was seen in United’s first two games of this season.

The reintroduction of Christian Eriksen against Nottingham Forest brought the return of Ten Hag’s more typical 4-2-3-1, but for all of the Dane’s value in possession, he lacks defensive intensity against more physical opponents. Several games last season devolved into chaos in the second halves as Eriksen struggled against stronger opponents.

Kobbie Mainoo’s ankle injury and the sale of Fred have left Ten Hag short when looking for a partner for Casemiro. Eriksen is a clever passer, but his lack of defensive intensity can make United lightweight. Scott McTominay is a willing runner and brings “power”, according to Ten Hag, when attacking or defending set pieces, but he is uncomfortable receiving the ball from his centre-backs or passing under pressure.

Casemiro’s slow start to the season has raised concerns about his long-term suitability but United need a player who can complement the Brazil star rather than an outright successor.

Any incoming midfielder needs to be a secure passer when using the ball and an athletic defensive pest when out of possession. The priority is getting someone to help Casemiro keep things safe in a 4-2-3-1. Ten Hag would appreciate someone who is a strong ball carrier who can help them in the attacking transition.

They will need to be on the cheaper end of things due to FFP considerations. United would struggle to match the £58million ($73m) fee Chelsea paid for Romeo Lavia, let alone the £115million they spent on Moises Caicedo.

The obvious choice: Sofyan Amrabat

If Ten Hag had the green light to get another midfielder, he would get Fiorentina’s Amrabat, who starred at the World Cup for Morrocco.

A look at his smarterscout profile for last season explains why. Smarterscout gives players a rating from zero to 99, relating to either how often they perform a given stylistic action (e.g. shooting volume) or how effective they are (e.g. at progressing the ball upfield) compared with others playing their position.

  • His high scores for disrupting opposition moves (81) and defending impact (69) show us he is an athletic and aggressive defender. Contrary to his impressive outings in Qatar last year, most of Amrabat’s best performances have seen him play as a box-to-box, ball-winning midfielder rather than as a No 6. He covers a lot of ground when attempting to recover the ball for his side.
  • His excellent link-up play (81) and ball retention (83) scores reflect his tidiness in possession. Amrabat is comfortable receiving the ball under pressure and in tight spaces. He is a good, if erratic, long passer.
  • He has below-average scores for carry and dribble volume (45) and progressive passing (33), but can be a decent ball carrier when called upon. He is not the quickest but when going from A to B, he picks up speed.
  • His low scores in all of the blue attacking categories suggest a player who isn’t going to chip in with many goals or assists. Amrabat’s best work is against the ball, shutting up shop.
  • He’s not very good in the air, as shown by his aerial duels quantity score of 38. If a team wanted to play long over him, he could be caught out.

Amrabat would be an upgrade on Fred, an energetic ball-winner who can keep things ticking. The Moroccan is best as a box-to-box player but can serve as the deepest defensive midfielder when needed. There are flaws — his tackles often give away fouls and lead to yellow cards and his ambition to chase after players in possession can lead to tricky situations where he gets pulled out of position, but he fits what Ten Hag wants.

The 27-year-old is the leading candidate, partially because he has worked with Ten Hag at Utrecht. He was used on the right of a midfield diamond for much of their final season together.

The United manager has a preference for players he has worked with and Amrabat ticks all the major boxes of what United needs. He could be available for less than £30million and understands Ten Hag’s tactics.

A tough-tackling alternative: Mohamed Camara

Mohamed Camara is a hard-running, hard-tackling defensive midfielder known for picking up yellow cards at Monaco.

Here’s how he looks after an impressive first season in France.

  • Camara’s score of 94 for disrupting opposition moves suggests he is a defensive terrier. Working next to Youssouf Fofana at Monaco, it often falls to Camara to go after the man in possession and win the ball back. A score of 75 in defensive intensity shows how often Camara is the one putting a boot in, but his much lower score for defending impact (24) suggests he needs to work on the timing of the tackles.
  • His decent scores for carry and dribble volume (70) and progressive passing (56) indicate he is useful when advancing the ball between the penalty areas. Camara can be deceptively clever when playing on the half-turn. However, his lower scores for link-up play (25) and ball retention (50) indicate someone who can be a little too eager to get the ball forward.
  • Camara picked up six yellow cards and one red across 29 league appearances in 2022-23. He has collected two more bookings in three games this season.

Comparing Camara to Amrabat, it becomes clear how one player is more of a rough diamond.


Camara is a player to monitor (Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Camara is more energetic when working against the ball than Amrabat, but the Mali international can be more focused when going after the ball. He is more ambitious when looking to pass and attempting to shoot but lacks Amrabat’s nous.

Camara will miss a handful of games in January for the Africa Cup of Nations — in the last edition, he impressed with his willingness to receive and play the ball on the poor pitches in Cameroon. He is a player to keep tabs on.

The other former Ten Hag player: Ryan Gravenberch

When De Jong departed Ten Hag’s Ajax side in 2019, the manager turned to 17-year-old Gravenberch. Edson Alvarez, who signed for West Ham United this summer, worked as a defensive pivot while Steven Berghuis, Dusan Tadic and Gravenberch were the forward-thinking box-to-box players.

“He has a lot of capabilities, especially in an attacking sense, but he understands hard work,” Ten Hag said in their final season together.

Gravenberch was one of the best ball-progressers in the Dutch league (although not quite as good as De Jong), working in the left half-space and becoming influential in the final third.

Gravenberch had a disappointing first season at Bayern Munich in 2022-23. He only started three league games and is considered surplus to Thomas Tuchel’s requirements.

If the 21-year-old was reunited with his former manager, he would operate similarly to Mount, playing ahead of Casemiro and looking to contribute with goals and assists.

Though the Dutchman is superior to Mount in a handful of categories that would benefit United (including heading and carrying the ball from deep), he lacks Mount’s defensive discipline and energy.

Gravenberch would be an excellent alternative to the injured Mount, but United could do with another player who can do the defensive work behind the box-to-box operators.

Someone who got Liverpool’s attention: Exequiel Palacios

Bayer Leverkusen’s managing director for sport, Simon Rolfes, has said Exequiel Palacios is going nowhere this summer.

This is why he wants to keep him amid Liverpool’s interest.

  • Leverkusen regard Palacios as a defensive genius. He is a touch-tight tackler (as shown by his defending intensity score of 88), who matches a high-energy style with effectiveness when looking to win the ball (defending impact score of 75).
  • He has shown great defensive awareness — for ball recovery and interceptions, he scores 78. The 24-year-old Argentinian is good at noticing trouble before cutting things out with proper positioning. He averages about five tackles plus interceptions per 90 minutes, placing him in the top five per cent of Bundesliga midfielders.
  • Like Amrabat, Palacios is a sensible and safe passer, keeping things ticking during team build-up and allowing others to shine (ball retention ability score of 68 and link-up play score of 74).

Palacios would slot into a United team that wants to focus on transition-based football. If Rolfes says the midfielder is unavailable this summer, Ten Hag should look at having exploratory talks for 2024.

The alternative choice: Youssouf Fofana

Before Aurelien Tchouameni went to Real Madrid, he played at Monaco next to Fofana.

Fofana operated as the deepest player in midfield while Tchouameni had the licence to get forward. Since Tchouameni’s departure, Fofana has blossomed into a defensive maverick.

  • Fofana is the ball carrier for Monaco’s midfield. That 97 score for carry and dribble volume reflects a player who can run with the ball between both penalty areas and get his team out of tricky situations.
  • He is a superior progressive passer (64) to Camara. He has low scores in link-up play (27) and ball retention (eight) but is excellent when launching long passes whenever Monaco want to go direct.
  • Fofana’s drives into the final third and long passes mean he influences the attacking third and he is keen to take a shot on (shot volume of 82).
  • He has a lot of raw materials to become a fine defensive midfielder. He is a tough tackling player when needed (86 for defensive intensity) but is a little more refined than Camara, able to come away with the ball more often without a yellow card (defending impact score of 76).

Both Monaco players we have included on this shortlist would be valuable for this United team, which needs athletic ball winners who can protect against counter-attacks.

Anything else to consider?

PSV Eindhoven’s Ibrahim Sangare is a name that appears in statistics-backed shortlists. However, recruitment staff at different clubs have expressed concerns about his ability to receive the ball under pressure, believing he is loose in possession, which can lead to turnovers in dangerous areas.

“Sangare is really good against the ball, but he can’t take the ball,” explained one sporting director to The Athletic’s Stuart James in his excellent article on holding midfielders. “Moises Caicedo, for example, playing out from the goalkeeper, dealing with the ball under pressure, he’s got the bollocks and the technical ability and the awareness to help you build in the first phase. Sangare hasn’t (got that).”

Lyon’s Maxence Caqueret is another midfielder often linked to Premier League clubs. He, too, comes out favourably in specific statistical searches but is yet to get the attention of teams such as United.

As evidenced by Arsenal’s purchase of Declan Rice and Chelsea’s acquisition of Caicedo, the No 6 role has never been more sought after.

United are in a difficult predicament as the summer window closes for a few reasons:

1. The two best defensive midfielders on the market have been signed by Chelsea.

2. One of the better short-term options, Wataru Endo, went to Liverpool.

3. Ten Hag might need to sell players before signing others.

Defensive midfielders are now one of the best tools for starting and stopping a wide variety of attacks. United have less than a week to get someone in to help Casemiro and co.



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(Top photos: Getty Images)