In a season which has seen Manchester United already turfed out of the Champions League and League Cup, alongside slipping firmly out of the mix for the top four, it has been hard to pinpoint the major issue that has inhibited Erik ten Hag’s side.
Much attention has, of course, been centred on an attack which has netted just 24 times in 21 Premier League games so far in 2023/24 – the fourth-worst record in the division – while defensively, the Red Devils have remained rather shaky, notably shipping eight goals in just their last four league outings.
For all those woes at opposite ends of the pitch, the midfield has also come under intense scrutiny ever since the narrow opening weekend win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, with club legend Gary Neville stating that the pairing of Mason Mount and Casemiro were “torn to shreds” in that nervy 1-0 triumph.
While that duo have since been hamstrung by injury in recent months, those who have replaced them have also been particularly underwhelming, with Scott McTominay – who ranks in just the bottom 8% among his European peers for progressive passes per 90 – hardly the most comfortable on the ball, while summer signing Sofyan Amrabat has “disappointed” thus far, in the words of journalist Dean Jones.
A shining light has undoubtedly been the mature displays of 18-year-old sensation, Kobbie Mainoo – who has been dubbed an “unreal” talent by ex-teammate Anthony Elanga – although his experienced colleague Christian Eriksen has been put firmly under the microscope alongside him, notably being hooked before the hour mark against Tottenham Hotspur last time out.
With the 31-year-old Dane also recording the lowest success rate for duels won among all Premier League midfielders, the time may have come to find a more youthful, long-term solution in the centre of the park – something Ten Hag and co may have already turned their attention to.
Man Utd eyeing Eriksen upgrade
According to a report from Football Transfers, United are said to have ‘moved a step closer‘ to sealing the signing of Benfica sensation, Joao Neves, having already struck a deal that will see Alvaro Fernandez head in the opposite direction on an initial loan deal.
The suggestion is that the Old Trafford side are hopeful that such an agreement can help to build positive relations with the Lisbon outfit amid their bid to sign Neves, with the 19-year-old said to be the club’s ‘leading midfield target’.
The report reveals that the Portuguese starlet does have a €120m (£103m) release clause in his existing contract that can be activated, although United are seemingly keen to ‘enter talks’ in the hope of avoiding paying that hefty sum.
While there is no suggestion that a deal can be struck this month, the hope will be that the Red Devils can get their man ahead of next season, helping to rejuvenate a somewhat ageing midfield department.
Joao Neves’ style of play
Despite being a rather slight figure at just 5 foot 9, Neves has proven himself to be a fierce operator in the centre of the park for Benfica of late, with data analyst Ben Mattinson describing him as a player who has a “lot of aggression in duels” and is “hard to win the ball off”.
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That is evidenced by the fact that the teenager ranks in the top 7% among his peers in leagues comparable with the Primeira Liga for tackles won per 90, as well as in the top 2% for blocks made, indicating that willingness to put his body on the line.
Interestingly, even with his diminutive stature, the in-demand youngster also ranks in the top 11% for aerial duels won, further proof of the battling presence that he can provide to Ten Hag’s ranks.
It is on the ball, however, where Neves appears to thrive, with Mattinson stating that the three-cap Portugal international reminds him of “[Paul] Scholes in some ways“, having been described as someone who would bring “tenacity and technical ability” to this floundering United side.
That likeness to the United icon – who is also just 5 foot 6 – is certainly high praise indeed, with Scholes arguably having been the “best midfielder of his generation“, according to Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola.
Much like Mattinson’s prior assessment of Neves, the Englishman was also a tough yet silky operator when in his pomp, with current Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez previously stating:
“Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away.”
Trying to emulate the success of a player who won a plethora of major honours in a glittering spell at the Theatre of Dreams is a tough task, although such a comparison merely demonstrates the young diamond that United could have on their hands.
How Joao Neves compares to Christian Eriksen
As stated previously, a key issue with Eriksen of late has been his lack of athleticism and fragility in the centre of the pitch, with the former Spurs man winning just 32% of his total duels this season in the Premier League, including winning just 29% of his aerial duels.
Neves, meanwhile, is far more robust having won 58% of his total duels and 57% of his aerial duels in the Portuguese top flight, ensuring he could offer a more natural defensive presence than the current United man, if a deal was to be agreed.
Joao Neves’ season by numbers (Primeira Liga)
17 games (15 starts)
3 ‘big chances’ created
0.6 key passes per game
3.4 tackles & interceptions per game
6.7 balls recovered per game
58% total duels won
90% pass accuracy rate
1.4 successful dribbles per game
7.51 avg. match rating
On the ball too, Neves also seemingly has the edge in certain metrics, notably possessing the ability to drive forward from deep as he averages 1.4 successful dribbles per game from his 17 appearances, while Eriksen averages just 0.2 in that regard from 15 league outings.
The pair both have one goal and one assist apiece, yet Neves edges his veteran counterpart with regard to chances created (three v one), while surprisingly, it is also the Portuguese gem who appears to be more composed in possession with a pass accuracy rate of 90% – far ahead of the Dane (83%).
Despite his relative youth, all the signs point to the Benfica teen being a potential upgrade on Eriksen if a deal is to be struck this summer, with United having potentially found the figure who can partner Mainoo for the foreseeable future in Manchester.
While that reported £103m fee is rather eye-watering for one so young, Neves’ current form – and apparent likeness to Scholes – explains why he is such a worthwhile target.