Manchester United's title chances slim without introduction of a defensive midfielder
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Paul Pogba of Manchester United looks dejected after the Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester United at St Mary's Stadium on August 22, 2021 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

While Manchester United continued their incredible record away from home, equalling the Arsenal invincibles for consecutive away fixtures without defeat, they will not receive any trophy for that achievement.

Nor will they receive a trophy for coming second in the Premier League. Or beating Manchester City.

Manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spoken in the past about wanting to stretch a potential title charge into the latter stages of the campaign. 

Any title challenge can, for now, be put firmly on ice. For United's title ambitions start and end with how they can cope in midfield, and after their disappointing draw against Ralph Hasenhüttl's Saints, they've proven to be a discombobulated and haphazard duo.

United have eight days to sort themselves out in the transfer window. They've recruited important players thus far at cut-rate prices - they need just one more to truly challenge.

Where United come unstuck in midfield

If one were to look at recent title-winning midfields, there is a recurring theme: a runner, a creator and someone to hold and defend. For Manchester City, you have a trio of Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho - or the young replacement of Rodri

On Merseyside, Fabinho sits between midfield and attack and is arguably the best in the world at what he does. He allowed Jordan Henderson and, until recently, Georginio Wijnaldum to create around their deadly front three.

But on the red side of Manchester, it feels that United continue to invest in their midfield but recruit square pegs for round holes. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes eighteen months ago felt like a turning of the page - but that has not yet been built upon.

The likes of Nemanja Matic and Fred - the pivot that started against Southampton on Sunday afternoon - cannot be relied upon due to their inconsistencies both defensively and in possession. 

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Scott McTominay is a bit of an outlier; while he was firstly introduced to be a holding midfielder under Jose Mourinho, he has consistently reinvented himself to be a utility player under Solskjaer, fitting into whichever system required and, more often than not, performing.

But McTominay is not somebody who can start every week at the required standard. He is still too wasteful in possession and can usually only play in a pivot with his Brazilian counterpart. He is the ying to Fred's yang - but United need somebody who can play both of these instruments together.

For the likes of Donny van de Beek to be freed from the shackles of his defensive responsibilities, a tenacious and competent defensive midfielder is required at Old Trafford.

The Dutchman is a creative midfielder but cannot fulfil his purpose when expected to perform as one half of a defensive-minded pivot.

United came unstuck against the Saints on Sunday when the press became too intense; Hasenhüttl's side rely on heavy pressure on the midfield, and Fred's weakness in possession along with Matic's lack of speed ensured United were often on the back-foot, creating more pressure on Harry Maguire - who struggled.

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A well-rounded anchorman would have allowed United to break up the play, and allow the likes of Fred or Paul Pogba to create chances - the Red Devils need someone capable of recycling possession and allowing United's creativity to flourish higher up the pitch.

Who fulfils this role?

There are a few players who would be ideal to function in this defensive role for United. The obvious name who comes to mind is Declan Rice from West Ham United, who has international experience and excels as a pure number four.

The English midfielder proved his class at the European Championship, and would also be adept at dropping to become a third centre-half in possession in case of a quick breakaway.

But Rice's talent comes at a high price, as does his nationality: English players usually incur a higher price due to the Premier League's strict homegrown policy.

Rice also is reportedly frustrated with the Hammers due to their 'prohibitive' price tag - giving himself some capital in seeking a move away.

Another quality addition would be Leicester City's Wilfred Ndidi - who has settled into the Foxes well since arriving as N'Golo Kante's long-term replacement. Still only 24, the Nigerian would slot into a 4-3-3 system at the base of the midfield.

The issue with Ndidi is that Leicester are no longer a selling club - previously the likes of Kante and Riyad Mahrez would have to be sold to continue Leicester's business model - but their success domestically recently has lessened their need to sell.

However, if United presented Solskjaer with a blank chequebook, Ndidi would certainly be high on the Norwegian's list.

Internally, the talented James Garner is a solid option, but after joining Nottingham Forest for another loan spell he is unavailable for at least another season - and is inexperienced with the high intensity of the Premier League.

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Two other options touted have been WolvesRuben Neves and RennesEduardo Camavinga - and while they would be affordable options, neither are true defensive midfielders and would be signings in the mould of Fred - a defensive-minded player who doesn't yet have all the tools to be a lone anchorman.

United have eight days to make up their mind - if they want to challenge the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and European Champions Chelsea, they cannot afford to wait another twelve months to sign a holding midfielder.