If they are to challenge for the title next term, Solskjaer’s side cannot afford to look past the Mali international as their midfield general
In one particular way, Manchester United’s season is the perfect Rorschach test for the modern fan experience.
Depending on who you are or where you’re looking from, it is possible to evince unabashed enthusiasm, indifference or apoplexy toward what has been, objectively, a satisfactory season.
The Red Devils are on course for a second-place finish in the league, bested only by a Manchester City side that have had consistency down to an art form in the second half of the campaign.
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In Europe, they can look forward to a Europa League final against Villarreal in Gdansk on Wednesday; win that, and it will be the club’s first major honour since they won the same competition in 2017 in Stockholm.
Those were the days of Jose Mourinho, of course; since the departure of the Portuguese manager in 2018, United have sought to purge themselves of his pernicious influence.
The hiring of club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a conscious step with a view to reconnecting to the club’s values, and while progress has been a little more glacial than many would have liked, the Norwegian has undoubtedly improved year-on-year. This year’s runner-up spot follows sixth and third-place finishes in his first and second seasons respectively.
A proper title challenge for next season is now a logical expectation, and that in itself is a marker for how well Solskjaer has done.
In spite of this, the jury remains out on his aptitude for the job. Many cite a lack of tactical rigour in his team’s playing style and the absence of the relentless consistency that was a hallmark of a previous, rosier era.
Yet more – in their ongoing war with the Glazers – dismiss him as little more than a rubber stamp, a company stooge content to project a cheery image for the cameras and sure to never rock the boat.
These impressions may be true to some degree (Alex Ferguson Solskjaer certainly is not), but what is undeniable is that, under the 48-year-old, Manchester United have the capacity to be properly devastating, even if only in bursts. Some of their Europa League performances have been scintillating to watch, and their record against the top sides in the Premier League have been exemplary over the last year.
What is needed, however, is investment in raising the team’s floor. Players like Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani have raised the ceiling no end with their quality in moments, but it is in the more quotidian responsibilities that the truest potential of a team is unlocked.
An illustration, both of the problem and of what needs to be done to fix it, comes in the fact that nominal No. 10 Fernandes, whose influence on the side inside 18 months has been staggering, is the side’s top progressor of the ball, both in terms of carries and passes.
This is clearly suboptimal, and highlights the absence of capacity at the base of the United midfield, where Fred and Scott McTominay plug away gamely, supplying energy and muscularity but little else.
The Brazilian in particular has been guilty of high-profile errors recently, most notably in United’s FA Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of eventual winners Leicester City.
If United are to push on and properly challenge for the title, they must have the composure, guile and technical security that a top-of-the-line defensive midfielder can provide.
Thankfully for them, they needn’t look too far afield. Mali international Yves Bissouma has shone brightly as the midfield lynchpin of Graham Potter’s impressive altar to xG-denialism (otherwise known as Brighton and Hove Albion), and is now set for a starring role at a higher level.
The 24-year-old, who is top three in the Premier League in both aerial and ground duels, is reportedly attracting interest from Liverpool and Arsenal, and is valued at a fee in excess of £40 million.
It would be in United’s strongest interests to pay it: unlike, say, Wilfred Ndidi and Mauro Arambarri (who have both been linked to Old Trafford), Bissouma allies to his physicality and ball-winning ability technical security in possession, as well as the ability to cut through lines with his passing.
That is a skillset which is not only rare, but extremely valuable: see the fees that have been quoted in recent years for Declan Rice.
Would Brighton’s Yves Bissouma be a good signing for Manchester United?#ARSBHA
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His most recent outing, in Brighton’s 3-2 win over champions Manchester City incidentally, highlighted his best qualities: guile in possession, flair in execution and the athleticism to provide coverage all over the middle of the park.
What was most notable, however, was that despite Pep Guardiola’s side going down to 10 men inside the opening quarter of an hour, Potter was never tempted to sacrifice Bissouma for an attacker in pursuit of the comeback.
Pure tacklers will often prove superfluous in such situations. Not Bissouma.
It is precisely that range that Manchester United need at the base of their midfield: a general to whom the task of providing a solid technical base can be entrusted.