It’s no secret that Frenkie de Jong has been Erik ten Hag’s top target since he became Manchester United manager. Despite United reaching an agreement worth €85m including add-ons with Barcelona for De Jong last summer, Ten Hag’s pursuit of the Dutch midfielder last summer proved unsuccessful as De Jong was determined to stay at Barcelona. So far this season, De Jong has been phenomenal for Barcelona and has become one of the key players in Xavi Hernández’s team.
With the possibility of signing De Jong now seemingly non-existent, Ten Hag will likely be forced to turn his attention elsewhere. It’s important to understand exactly what profile of midfielder Manchester United need. What United seriously lacks is a midfielder who can drop deep, take the ball from the defence and progress forward. This is what De Jong specialises in and it’s why Ten Hag is so keen on signing him. Christian Eriksen has filled that role to a decent standard this season but he’s spent most of his career playing higher up the pitch and it’s not exactly where he shines the most.
It’s absolutely crucial that United sign a midfielder this summer who’s very good in the first phase of build-up and while that likely won’t be Frenkie de Jong, there are still some very good options who the club could sign this summer.
Here are five Frenkie de Jong alternatives:
1. Enzo Le FéeEmbed from Getty Images
Enzo Le Fée is a 23 year-old midfielder who currently plays for French club Lorient. The Frenchman has enjoyed an excellent season so far and could potentially take the next step in his career this summer. In Ligue 1 so far this season, Le Fée has averaged 6.77 progressive passes per 90 and 2.68 progressive carries per 90 which is extremely impressive. In addition to that, he’s also averaged 5.77 passes into the final third. The Lorient midfielder is also incredibly creative. In Ligue 1 so far this season, he’s averaged 2.20 key passes per 90 and 3.80 shot-creating actions per 90.
As good as Christian Eriksen has been this season, he has struggled this season when used as a no.8 in the big games and this is mainly due to the fact he isn’t amazing defensively and doesn’t offer a lot out of possession. However, this is an area where Enzo Le Fée excels. So far this season in Ligue 1, he’s averaged 3.42 tackles per 90, which ranks him amongst the best in his position. He’s also averaged 1.60 blocks per 90 and 1.04 interceptions per 90.
So far this season, Le Fée has been deployed as an attacking midfielder and as a no.8. United need a midfielder who can drop into deep positions and progress the ball forward. Le Fée is very good at doing this but it should be noted that he is probably better higher up the pitch due to his impressive playmaking ability.
Le Fée’s contract expires in June 2024 and a departure in the summer is possible. While he is better higher up the pitch, he’s capable of progressing the ball forward from deep positions, has a fantastic passing range and is very good defensively. He’d be a very good partner for Casemiro in midfield and likely wouldn’t command a huge transfer fee which is good at Ten Hag is likely to spend the majority of his budget on a striker.
2. Declan RiceEmbed from Getty Images
Declan Rice has developed into a fantastic midfielder and at 24 years-old, this summer would be the perfect time for him to take the next step in his career. While Rice is a defensive-midfielder, he could easily slot in as the no.8 next to Casemiro, and become United’s defensive-midfielder when Casemiro leaves. Rice is great in the first phase of build-up and that’s exactly the type of midfielder United need. In the Premier League so far this season, Rice has averaged 6.69 progressive passes per 90 and 2.54 progressive carries per 90 which ranks him amongst the very best progressive midfielders in Europe. Rice also averages 6.65 passes into the final third per 90 and 2.19 carries into the final third per 90 which is simply outstanding. His passing range is also fantastic and 70.5% of his long-range passes over the last year.
Defensively, Rice is also impressive. In the Premier League so far this season, he’s averaged 2.23 tackles per 90, 1.54 interceptions per 90 and 1.54 clearances per 90. The Englisman has also averaged 8.92 ball recoveries per 90 in the Premier League so far this season which is simply superb.
Rice is also decent creatively. Over the last year, he’s averaged 2.92 shot-creating actions per 90 and 1.23 key passes per 90 which isn’t bad at all.
3. Matheus NunesEmbed from Getty Images
Matheus Nunes is an exceptional footballer and while he hasn’t been at his best since joining Wolves in the summer, he showed at Sporting how good he can be. The Portuguese midfielder is very good in the first phase of build-up and is an outstanding ball-carrier which is exactly what Manchester United need. In the Premier League so far this season, he’s averaged 2.28 progressive carries per 90 and has completed 1.38 take-ons per 90 which shows that he is press-resistant. While he’s only averaged 3.13 progressive passes per 90 in the Premier League this season, in the 2021-22 Primeira Liga season, he averaged an impressive 5.74 progressive passes per 90 which proves he can do it to a high standard. His passing range is also quite impressive and he is also decent out of possession. In the Premier League so far this season, he’s averaged 2.44 tackles per 90 which is fairly respectable.
While Nunes has significantly dropped off since he joined Wolves in the summer, there’s no denying that he is an excellent midfielder. Liverpool have been strongly linked to the Portuguese midfielder but if he can re-discover the form he was in at Sporting, he’d be an excellent fit for Manchester United.
4. Khéphren ThuramEmbed from Getty Images
Khéphren Thuram is an extremely talented French midfielder currently plying his trade in Ligue 1 at OGC Nice. The 21 year-old French midfielder has become a very important player for Nice and could be an extremely good option for Manchester United this summer. Thuram is an elite ball-carrier and is extremely good in the first phase of build-up. In Ligue 1 this season, Thuram has averaged 2.96 progressive carries per 90 which is outstanding. He’s also press-resistant and has averaged 1.52 successful take-ons per 90 this season. His ball-control is fantastic, his passing ability is good and his technical ability in general is simply superb. The Frenchman is also fairly decent from a creative point of view. In Ligue 1 this season, he has averaged 2.69 shot-creating actions per 90 and 1.12 key passes per 90. He has registered 4 assists and also created 7 big chances, the most by any OGC Nice player in Ligue 1 so far this season.
If United did sign Thuram, it would be an astute piece of business. He’s an exceptional midfielder with incredible potential.
5. Matteo KovacicEmbed from Getty Images
Matteo Kovacic might well be one of the most underrated players in the Premier League. The Croatian midfielder could possibly leave Stamford Bridge this summer with his contract set to expire in June 2024. He has been linked to Manchester City in recent weeks but he’d be an excellent fit for Manchester United. He’s very decent in the first phase of build-up and is an exceptional ball-progressing midfielder. In the Premier League so far this season, he’s averaged 8.01 progressive passes per 90 and 2.08 progressive carries per 90. He’s also good at evading the press and averaged 2.20 successful take-ons per 90 in the 2021-22 Premier League season.
Kovacic is currently 28 and will turn 29 in May. While United do need to start signing players who are younger as the core of the team is ageing, signing someone of Kovacic’s age for the role next to Casemiro might not be a bad thing. United youngster Kobbie Mainoo has all the skills to develop into a world-class midfielder and is an extremely good ball-carrying midfielder. Kovacic could fill the role for the next 3-4 years and Mainoo could replace him once he leaves.
All 5 of these players mentioned are all fantastic players who have their strengths and weaknesses. All five are very good in the first phase of build-up and are capable of carrying the ball up the pitch which is something United desperately need. While it’s been abundantly clear all season United need a player who can fill that role to a high standard, it’s become even more clear since Christian Eriksen got injured as he’s really the only competent player United have in the first phase of build-up.
In United’s FA Cup quarter-final vs Fulham, United’s performance was appallingly bad before the minute of madness where manager Marco Silva, Willian and Aleksandar Mitrovic all saw red. The main reason for this was United’s build-up play from the back was dreadful as neither Scott McTominay or Marcel Sabitzer were dropping deep to take the ball from the defence and progress the play forward. This forced Ten Hag to make a change where he brought on Antony for Scott McTominay, which meant that Fernandes had to drop into a deeper position to be able to take the ball off the back four. This game in particular highlighted United’s need for an elite ball-progressing midfielder who’s good in the first phase.
In addition to Enzo Le Fée, Declan Rice, Matheus Nunes, Khéphren Thuram and Matteo Kovacic, United could also look at Real Madrid’s Dani Ceballos, whose current contract at the Bernabeu expires this summer. Other options are Feyenoord player Orkun Kökcü and AC Milan’s Ismaël Bennacer.