Lingard thrilled to have Ronaldo back at Man Utd
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When Cristiano Ronaldo arrived back at Manchester United this summer after 12 years away, the buzz and excitement that follows the Portuguese superstar filled the minds of the majority of the club’s fans.
But there was a small section of supporters who knew that, without a dedicated defensive midfielder — and a world-class one at that — they may struggle to dethrone Manchester City.
Some seven matches into the Premier League season, that issue looks like it may come back to haunt United as they attempt to end their eight-year wait for a domestic triumph.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had his eye on Declan Rice for some time now – and for good reason. The West Ham midfielder is an exemplary professional and never stops working in the engine room for David Moyes’ side.
The 22-year-old is much more than simply a holding midfielder or a ball winner: he can carry the ball expertly through midfield areas and spray passes from left to right.
He is to West Ham what Jorginho is to Chelsea, what Rodri and Fernandinho do for Man City. What Fabinho does so effectively for Liverpool. They control the ball, dictate the play and provide a calm presence in the congested midfield areas.
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But who does it for United?
Solskjaer is not short of midfield options, but it could be argued the Norwegian lacks that imposing figure in the centre of the park.
The one player who fits that description, Nemanja Matic, has declined in the latter stages of his career at 33 years of age.
Scott McTominay is more effective going from box-to-box, while there are doubts over Fred’s ability to consistently dominate the midfield areas.
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Paul Pogba has filled in as a pivot on occasion, but the Frenchman does not have the defensive acumen to patrol those midfield areas and protect the players behind him.
But Rice could be solution going forward for United. The England international has shown has he has strong mental attributes, leading his more senior team-mates as captain at the London Stadium despite his age.
While he does not tend to hog the limelight like his colleagues Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma, Rice’s work goes under the radar.
But that does not mean he isn’t getting noticed by his managers, both of whom speak in glowing terms about the player at their disposal.
England boss Gareth Southgate recently revealed he has regular chats with the Hammers star about how he can improve his game, such is his eagerness to learn.
“He is a real sponge for tactical information and observations on his game and he is desperate to be the best he can possibly be,” Southgate said.
“Even though he is a young player he has got tremendous leadership qualities.
“He is captaining his club at an incredibly young age. So you can see all the signs of what might be possible.
“There are the experiences he has been through now but also he is getting older and more mature and broader with his outlook on everything, and because of his mentality he is going to improve even more.”
There are comparisons to be drawn with how Sir Alex Ferguson spotted his side’s need for a pass-master, a deep-lying midfielder after Roy Keane left in 2005. John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher filled in while Ferguson scoured the market for his successor and eventually stumped up £18million to sign Michael Carrick from Tottenham.
At the time, signing Carrick felt like an anti-climax, especially when United had been linked with Gennaro Gattuso and Marcos Senna — two of the best ball winners around. But Ferguson wanted someone to strengthen the soft core of his side and Carrick was viewed as the man to do it.
Carrick was not a world-class player at the time of signing but an effective one, and a player who had a lot of room left to improve. His passing was pinpoint, his movement perhaps a little wooden but the way he read the game allowed him to find space in the clogged midfield areas.
It would turn out to be a signing that helped United claw back their dominance of English football, winning three consecutive Premier League titles between 2007 and 2009, with a 2008 Champions League winners’ medal thrown in for good measure.
It is difficult not to draw comparisons to United’s current situation under Solskjaer. While Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho satisfy the fans’ craving for star names, the need for a defensive midfielder was ignored and United have been left exposed in some matches this season.
Rice may appear to be a hugely expensive option, with his asking price likely to exceed £100m as West Ham are reluctant to allow him to depart, but the signs suggest his arrival could be the final piece in the puzzle for Solskjaer.
Given that the club have spent near to £500m under Solskjaer with no trophies to show for it, it may be a price worth paying if it means United can taste domestic success again.
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