Erik ten Hag’s overhaul of Manchester United would likely have to start at the centre of midfield. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic’s imminent departure from the club looks set to leave a big gaping hole in the middle of the park for the Red Devils.
A huge source of creativity and defensive solidity will follow the French and Serbian aces when they depart the club at the end of the season. While Scott McTominay and Fred have often proven to be dependable midfield anchors, United have struggled to offensively break opponents down when both midfield aces are deployed in front of the back four.
Donny van de Beek’s likely return from his loan spell at Everton could prove to be a revelation for the Red Devils, considering his excellent displays under Ten Hag at Ajax. However, the 52-year-old will likely need more than his former protégé to really enhance this United midfield.
Ten Hag’s solution to the club’s long term issue could well be under his nose, as 19-year-old midfield sensation Ryan Gravenberch has been at the heart of everything Ajax has done well this season. Despite being a relative teenager, the classy midfielder operates with a real mature balance in his play.
As well as being more than capable of threading a wonderful pass through a packed opposition defence, he looks after the ball with real responsibility. There is a wonderful industriousness to his game which ensures he very rarely gives the ball away when in possession.
However, this does not mean the 19-year-old only looks for the risk-free safe passes which are almost exclusively backwards or side to side. His efficient use of the ball enables him to be equally adept at beating opposition presses and compact defences, whether it is moving the ball with speed or precision or finding teammates in small pockets of space in-between the lines.
Gravenberch would also offer a flexibility which would be crucial during the hectic fixture pile-ups of December and the tail end of the campaign. Ten Hag has deployed the Netherlands international in front of the back four and as a more advanced midfielder on the right or left side of a midfield three.
How Ralf Rangnick would appreciate such a player right now. United are currently operating under the huge pressures of a painful injury exodus. As well as Edinson Cavani, Raphael Varane and Luke Shaw, the former RB Leipzig boss is also without Scott McTominay and Fred.
The two midfield enforcers have either been deployed together, or alongside the likes of Pogba and Matic. Their injury absences could not have come at a worse time, as United are facing Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea in the space of nine days.
A Gravenberch would have been able to compensate for their losses, providing the defensive nous of McTominay and the aggressive tenacity and penetration Fred brings to the current crop. Ten Hag will likely be watching United’s crescendo to this dramatic campaign from afar, assessing the quality and character of his future players.
While Ten Hag’s full focus will remain on Ajax, who are currently on course for a third consecutive Eredivisie title, he may well have an extra eye on Gravenberch’s performances.
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