While it’s expected to be a busy summer at Manchester United, rumours of targets for one particular problem position appear to have gone quiet.
The club have lost the services of Ander Herrera having allowed his contract to run down and while they hold youngster Scott McTominay in high regard, finding a like-for-like replacement for the Spaniard must surely be on their to do list.
The Red Devils have been linked to a number of ball winning midfielders in the past but recruiting a player of Herrera’s underrated quality won’t be easy, or cheap. We’ve taken a look at a number of candidates from overseas that could match the profile, be that immediately or further down the line.
To do so we’ve used Herrera’s statistics from his best season at United, scooping the club’s player of the season award in 2016/17, as a means of comparison.
The table below details Herrera’s statistics per 90 minutes in both the 2016/17 and 2018/19 seasons in the categories assessed in our study. The later graphic shows how each player stacks up to his standards from his best campaign but also the 29-year-old’s figures from the season gone-by to suggest who may be the best fit.
While Herrera’s figures for most dropped last season it is still clear that the former Athletic Club man – believed to be PSG bound – is still a master when it comes to breaking up play, but also a useful player in building it too.
The following shortlist ranges from established internationals to improving youngsters, with some likely to cost a considerable amount and others that would offer a lower risk play in that regard given the failures of some of the marquee signings at Old Trafford in recent years.
Thomas Delaney (27 / Borussia Dortmund / 7.13 rating)
The eldest of this six-man shortlist, Delaney turns 28 in September and only joined Borussia Dortmund last summer. The fee that the Bundesliga club spent at the time was £18m and after a solid debut season the reliable and industrious Dane would no doubt command a higher price 12 months on.
Delaney helped BVB sustain a title challenge right to the last in the Bundesliga and his ball winning skills were crucial to Lucien Favre’s counter-attacking side. The tireless midfielder averaged 2.7 tackles per 90 minutes and 2.3 interceptions, while registering five assists from an admittedly modest 0.6 open play key passes per 90.
Thiago Mendes (27 / Lille / 7.27 rating)
Another unsung hero in an exciting, counter-attacking team, 27-year-old Mendes could prove a real bargain for the right club this summer. A fee in the region of £20m may well tempt Lille into the sale of one of Europe’s most impressive defensive midfielders last season.
It’s Mendes who, of all players analysed here, is perhaps the most complete package. He isn’t out in front for any of the statistics assessed but doesn’t really have a weakness to his game either. The Brazilian averaged 2.5 tackles and two interceptions per 90 last season, registering five assists from 0.8 open play key passes per 90.
Thomas Partey (25 / Atletico Madrid / 6.93 rating)
Undoubtedly the most expensive option on this list, Partey is one name that has been linked to Old Trafford in the past and has made his interest in a future move to the Premier League clear. While some fans may see a move for a player that isn’t a guaranteed starter at Atletico as beneath the club, the Ghanaian – at 25 – still has the potential to become a top class midfielder.
His versatility – capable of filling in at right-back if needed – and power both on and off the ball would be a huge asset to United. Averages of 2.9 tackles and 2.1 interceptions prove as much from a defensive standpoint, while an outstanding 85.7 per cent dribble success rate proves that in possession Partey is more than capable of driving a team forwards from deep too.
Erick Pulgar (25 / Bologna / 7.11 rating)
Having improved year on year since arriving in Italy from his native Chile in 2015, Pulgar looks ready to make the next step in his career. The 25-year-old enjoyed an impressive second half to the previous campaign in particular, scoring all six of his league goals from March onwards whilst still fulfilling his defensive duties admirably.
He is perhaps a little more creative than some of those assessed here, with a good range of distribution whilst being capable of picking a pass in the final third too (one open play key pass per 90). Nevertheless, averages of 2.5 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per 90 more than highlight his ball winning capability and he, like Mendes, could be picked up for a fee that would represent superb value, with a reported €12m release clause.
Florian Grillitsch (23 / Hoffenheim / 7.06 rating)
While Grillitsch hasn’t been linked to United thus far the Austrian is on the radar of a number of Premier League clubs with Tottenham reportedly chief among them. The 23-year-old has enjoyed the best season of his career at Hoffenheim, starting 27 of 30 league appearances and even filling in at centre-back on a couple of occasions.
Another deep-lying midfielder with strong statistics across the board, Grillitsch posted excellent figures of 2.9 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per 90 last season – both closest to Herrera’s 2016/17 campaign numbers – whilst also creating one chance per 90 from open play and matching the Spaniard’s 75 per cent dribble success.
Ismael Bennacer (21 / Empoli / 6.96 rating)
The youngest offering of the bunch here, the progress that Bennacer made last season, particularly as it wore on, has alerted the attention of Napoli. Unable to prevent Empoli from being relegated, the former Arsenal youngster is all but certain to be on the move this summer and will be on many a shortlist across the continent as a result.
Of those analysed here the 21-year-old was tidiest in possession last season, completing 86.4 per cent of his passes and registering five assists. His defensive anticipation is perhaps back on some here but 1.7 interceptions per 90 is still not to be sniffed at and 2.9 tackles per 90 is encouraging to say the least. Throw in a 77.7 per cent dribble success rate from an impressive two dribbles per 90 and there is certainly a gem of a player there ready to make a significant step in his fledgling career.