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Man Utd have been left exposed: Lack of defensive midfield signing threatens to cost Erik ten Hag a triumphant second season

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Despite splashing the cash on three different areas of their squad, it’s clear the Red Devils still need more power and energy in the engine room

Manchester United may have taken three points from their first Premier League game of the season, but the inescapable truth is that they got away with murder in their 1-0 win against Wolves. And not just because Andre Onana avoided conceding a penalty despite committing one of the clearest fouls of the weekend.

Wolves were regarded as one of the main candidates for relegation in 2023-24 after making hardly any summer signings and parting ways with Julen Lopetegui a week before the season opener, but they utterly dominated the match at Old Trafford. Gary O’Neil’s side had 23 shots – more than any opponent has managed at Old Trafford since Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea almost 18 years ago.And if Matheus Cunha, Pablo Sarabia and Pedro Neto’s shooting had been a little sharper, it could very easily have been a bloodbath of the type United were subjected to last season by Brentford, Manchester City and Liverpool, among others.

After recording more clean sheets than anyone else in the league last season, United were woefully exposed in defence, and only newly-promoted duo Luton Town and Sheffield United conceded more shots than them on the opening weekend.

Erik ten Hag’s side may have got away with it this time thanks to some leniency from the referee and the profligacy of the Wolves forwards, but they urgently need to improve for their next two away matches at Tottenham and Arsenal, who will be licking their lips at facing such an open team.

United spent over £165 million ($210m) on their squad over the summer in three key areas, but the Wolves game suggested they have badly overlooked their midfield. And they could live to regret it…

Casemiro too isolated

Ten Hag lined up against Wolves with more or less the team he had been picking in pre-season, but once the game kicked-off, Luke Shaw was inverting from left-back and joining Casemiro in holding midfield. The idea was to give the team the ‘box midfield’ that has became fashionable among Premier League sides since Pep Guardiola began using it last season.

The experiment did not go well, though, as Lisandro Martinez struggled as a left-sided centre-back in what had become a back three, while Alejandro Garnacho had no support behind him on the left wing. The shape was abandoned at half-time, with Shaw moving back into left-back, leaving Casemiro badly isolated in holding midfield.Too often Casemiro was the one under pressure. As Gary Neville put it on Sky Sports: “Casemiro got absolutely torn to shreds tonight. Manchester United’s midfield were non-existent and they were absolutely ripped apart… It emptied. That would have been a real worry for Erik ten Hag.”

Amrabat unattainable – for now

Neville believes Sofyan Amrabat would help solve United’s midfield problems. United have shown interest in the Morocco midfielder, who was one of the stars of the 2022 World Cup, throughout the summer, but have yet to make an official bid to Fiorentina.

Amrabat, 26, has the power and tenacity of Casemiro but is also both a fine dribbler and passer, and would definitely be an upgrade for United. He is keen to leave Fiorentina and has not played in any of their pre-season matches. United cannot afford to sign him for now, however, as they are teetering on the edge of the money they are permitted to spend due to the Premier League’s Profitability and Sustainability rules.

The only route towards Amrabat – or Everton midfielder Amadou Onana – is to sell players to free up not only transfer budget but also places in the squad. Fred, Anthony Elanga and David de Gea are the only players to have left so far, and the latter departed as a free agent.

The collapse of Harry Maguire’s proposed £30m move to West Ham delivered a blow to United’s ambitions to bolster their squad, while there have been no takers for Donny van de Beek or Anthony Martial. And United’s struggles to raise cash have now led to Liverpool entering the race for Amrabat.