MANCHESTER UNITED have unearthed a gem in Kobbie Mainoo.
Being anointed as the saviour of one of the biggest football teams on the planet would be a daunting prospect for even the most experienced of players.Kobbie Mainoo made his first Premier League start of the season against Everton last week[/caption]
But it also speaks volumes about the potential of the young academy graduate.
The Stockport-born star has developed through Man Utd’s youth system without even leaving on a loan spell.
There was a genuine buzz building around his performances in pre-season and there was a real sense that he would start the campaign in rotation for United in the centre of the park.
That was until an unfortunate ankle injury sustained during the club’s pre-season tour pushed the timetable for his integration back.
His injury prompted the Red Devils to act in the summer transfer window, with Erik ten Hag signing Moroccan midfielder Sofyan Amrabat on loan from Serie A side Fiorentina.
That move, it would be fair to say, has not worked out as the pace and intensity of the game in the Premier League has proven a step too far at this stage for Amrabat.
Indeed, only last week reports emerged suggesting that United were considering the possibility of bringing in another central midfielder in January.
That was until Mainoo made his comeback.
He came into the starting lineup for Sunday’s Premier League match against Everton and immediately looked like he belonged at this level.
His composure and game intelligence was evident from the start as he received the ball under pressure and moved it smoothly through the thirds.
In this sense he has already shown up all of the other midfielders that United have used so far this season.
But what aspects of his game make him the answer to United’s problems in the midfield?
Composure when building out from the back
This past summer we saw United spend a reported £50million to bring in goalkeeper Andre Onana from Inter Milan.
On the surface it made a lot of sense as Onana’s ability with his feet would help United to transition to playing the ball out from the back more regularly, something that Ten Hag had often referenced.
The problem, which quickly became evident, though, was that the midfielders for United were not comfortable enough receiving the ball facing their own goal to allow them to build out from the back in the way that they wanted to.
The likes of Amrabat and Casemiro, who has regressed hugely from a strong 2022/23 season, are too static when they receive the ball and they tend to play it back to the centre-backs or goalkeeper.
Mainoo, on the other hand, has already shown the ability to receive in these positions before turning and playing progressively.
Having midfielders who are comfortable receiving back-to-goal on the half-turn and getting turned to drive forward in possession is an essential element for a team looking to build from the back.
If the opposition knows that your midfielders are not comfortable in these positions then they simply move players up behind them to force the ball backwards.
Having a player, like Mainoo, who is comfortable and confident in these positions opens the game up for a team like United as all of a sudden they can play through pressure and then start attacking through the thirds in a more controlled manner.
Mainoo is excellent in terms of taking possession and either finding a creative passing option to play through the press or turning and stepping out in possession.
Now, with Mainoo coming into the midfield picture we see United with a player who can play beside one of Casemiro or Amrabat and add mobility to their experience.
Mainoo is fast and he reads the game well, meaning he will move quickly to get into position to receive the ball before making fast decisions in possession.
In short, this is exactly what United have been missing in their midfield.
Although we have seen Ten Hag resort to using Amrabat at left-back at times this season, due to a severe injury outbreak, United haven’t really had a central midfielder who is mobile enough to cover large areas of the field on their own.
That was until, however, Mainoo came back into the picture.
When teams want to utilise a possession-based style of play the structure they use and the flexibility that they show is key in being successful.
Having a central midfielder who is mobile and proactive in terms of how they position themselves in build-up can be crucial.
This can allow other players to move forward into advanced positions quickly as the ball comes out from the back.
Against Everton, we saw Mainoo drop into the full-back positions periodically to offer balance as the United fullbacks moved high to give their team width further up the pitch.
The fact that Mainoo has the ability to rotate into the fullback position in this manner offers an extra layer of protection for United.
Not only can he receive the ball cleanly in the wide positions to keep the attacking momentum moving and draw opposition players out of position, but he can also protect the wide spaces from opposition counterattacks.
This mobility from the central areas makes it easier for Ten Hag to push his players into more advanced areas.
Previously, United would have been vulnerable in the wide areas in transition as their central defenders struggle to cover space when they are pulled wide.
With Mainoo in the midfield, we see a United side that are more secure.
With the addition of Mainoo we suddenly see a team that looks like a modern team who are capable of playing, tactically, in the way that their manager wants.
Ball carrying in the opposition half
You can make the argument that United have not had a true ball carrier in their midfield since Paul Pogba, but given Pogba’s issues with injury and form, even this is potentially a stretch.
Mainoo is a young player who seems to be able to slow the game down in his head.
When he receives the ball, even under intense pressure, he never appears to be rushed and he is not easily pressed and dispossessed.
That means when United are in more established possession of the ball, in the opposition half, they have the option to move it to Mainoo and have them drive forward to disrupt and break down the opposition defensive block.
While United have passers in the midfield, in Mason Mount or Christian Eriksen, and a runner in Scott McTominay they did not have a player who was comfortable in possession in all thirds of the pitch.
That was until Mainoo came back into the team.
Now, with the young English midfielder looking like he will firmly establish himself as a regular for United, we see that they have an option centrally who is press-resistant and capable of carrying the ball forward and through pressure.
The fact that he can also carry the ball and be effective in the final third makes him an extremely interesting player who can play in all phases of the game.
The fact that Mainoo has come into the Man Utd first team and looked like a vastly experienced midfielder says a lot about his qualities.
He has already looked more comfortable in terms of building the play and progressively moving forward than some of his more experienced, and expensive, teammates.
The emergence of Mainoo is sure to prevent United from moving back into the market for a midfielder, and perhaps from making another costly mistake.
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