Manchester United are solid defensively, despite their weakness in the central midfield, according to former Republic of Ireland defender Kenny Cunningham.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side kept a clean sheet against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team on Sunday, winning 2-0 against the side that had previously been 21-games undefeated.
Speaking to OTB Sports after the match, Cunningham suggested that the clean sheet was not down to the strength of United’s defensive unit.
“I think they are [a good defensive team], but I don’t think it is necessarily because they have the best defenders and the best defensive unit,” Cunningham said.
“The two centre halves in particular, I don’t think they are the strongest pairing that I have seen, but I really like the way that Solskjaer protects them.
“He has got two fullbacks, for me probably the two best defensive fullbacks in the league, and that helps.”
Cunningham suggested that Solskjaer has spotted the weakness in the middle of the field and is making clever use of his other players to prevent that weakness from costing his side.
“If you have a small bit of vulnerability in the centre of your defence, what you need to do is get two fullbacks in your team that can defend, who can narrow up and protect them and get a barrier in front of them as well,” Cunningham said.
“Ideally two central midfield players who understand how to defend, can stop balls being played into the feet of centre forwards who might cause those centre halves trouble in one-v-one situations.
“[Players] who will screen things and will actually protect them by saying to the two centre halves, ‘just stay in your area of the pitch, and just defend the penalty box’.
“You don’t have to run behind, because you are not going to charge up the pitch; they are going to protect the space.”
While he acknowledged that it will not be easy, Cunningham suggested that it is not impossible for United to win titles while protecting their central midfielders.
“It is not the ideal [setup],” Cunningham said. “You can do it; Manchester City have won titles with weaknesses in the central defence.
“We have seen that with Guardiola and some of the quality that he has had to deal with at centre half.
“It hasn’t stopped them winning league titles.”
Manchester United need a solid number six
Cunningham believes that if they are going to challenge for silverware, Solskjaer’s side will need to commit to acquiring a new defensive midfielder in the number six role.
“[Manchester United need] to play with a number six and two number eights, and what I mean by that is attacking midfielders,” Cunningham said.
“For me, to consistently commit to playing [Paul] Pogba and [Bruno] Fernandes in the Manchester United team in those central areas, which are their most effective positions, you need a top-class number six in terms of their defensive mentality.
“I am not sure if they have that. I still have my doubts about Fred and [Scott] McTominay is not a natural holding midfield player, but he might be able to develop those traits.”
The solution, according to Cunningham, is for Solskjaer to invest in the likes of Wilfred Ndidi from Leicester City.
“If you look at holding midfielders in the Premier League, I would say that type of player that has been the most effective this season I would suggest is probably Ndidi at Leicester,” Cunningham said.
“I am talking about that type of player in terms of athleticism, physicality and is just a natural defender, Fernandinho in his prime, that type of player.”
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