What a difference a year makes.
Exactly 12 months ago today, Manchester United announced their second signing of the summer transfer window, confirming the arrival of Christian Eriksen. The Dane arrived at M16 on a free transfer after turning down the offer of a new contract at Brentford.
The Dane, who had joined the Bees on a short-term deal only months before, arrived at Old Trafford with a reputation for having been one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders, on and off, for the best part of a decade. He regularly pulled the strings in the No.10 position at Tottenham Hotspur, scoring goals and registering assists at a steady rate.
With that said, almost everyone expected him to provide competition and support for Bruno Fernandes in the No.10 position. But after Erik ten Hag deployed him as a false nine and then as a defensive midfielder in his first two games in charge, Eriksen found a home at No.8.
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He excelled as a deep-lying playmaker who orchestrated proceedings and had possession between both boxes. Moments before operating in that position for the first time, starring from deep in the 2-1 win over Liverpool last August, United unveiled their second midfield signing of the summer, parading Casemiro around Old Trafford following his arrival for £60 million from Real Madrid. .
Although the Brazilian was never United’s No.1 target in midfield last summer, with the club spending more than 100 days following Frenkie de Jong’s signing, he was the perfect alternative. He brought a world-class presence and a winning mentality to Old Trafford that had been missing for years.
Once he had got used to life in England and found his way into the team, it wasn’t long before he, along with Eriksen and Fernandes in the engine room, showed why he was what United had been missing for so long. The Reds had been in desperate need of adding a world-class defensive midfielder to their ranks for years, and Casemiro soon provided them with the defensive nous and devastating capabilities they lacked in midfield.
After Scott McTominay and Fred, more commonly known as ‘McFred’, struggled to give United the quality and control a club of its size should have produced in midfield, Casemiro, Eriksen and Fernandes quickly changed the process. United finally had a world class midfield and it quickly blossomed into one of the very best in the Premier League last term.
However, it was clear towards the end of the campaign, at least in the cases of Casemiro and Eriksen, that the grueling nature of United’s fixture schedule was taking its toll. Standards began to drop and fatigue was a clear problem. Ten Hag often refused to rotate his pack, even in cup matches, perhaps due to the lack of sufficient quality in the reserves.
United have already taken their first step to address this problem this summer, signing Mason Mount from Chelsea. He made his debut in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Leeds United in Oslo and offered an immediate insight into why the Ten Hag had their heart set on signing him, both on and off the ball.
He oozed class in possession, appearing between both boxes and leading the midfield press. He will provide the energy that Eriksen struggled to deliver towards the end of the last term.
Mount, although eyebrows have been raised by his £60m price tag, ticks a host of boxes for Ten Hag. The Dutchman is particular about the type of players he uses, especially in midfield. Like Eriksen was 12 months ago, Mount is more commonly associated with operating as a No.10, whereas he is actually more used to playing a little deeper and offering a wide range of qualities.
Through the signings of Eriksen, Casemiro and Mount, plus the emergence of youngster Kobbie Mainoo, United’s midfield is now dripping with quality and potential. The area of the team that was battered week after week in the months leading up to Ten Hag’s arrival has resurfaced and Eriksen’s arrival a year ago today marked the beginning of United’s midfield development.
It now offers a world-class defensive presence, ball-playing excellence, creative guile, energy, ambition and potential. Of course, it has cost United a few quid to put it together, but at least they got it right this time, whereas in the past they failed miserably, signing Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek, who failed to deliver.
Ten Hag has succeeded where others have failed, bringing in players tailored to his system, no matter how fashionable a signing they may be at first glance. Just over 12 months ago, United’s midfield was in disarray, starved of world-class quality and plaudits; Ten Hag will now find it challenging to choose his strongest trio.