Man Utd were beaten in Astana in the Europa League but the trip was worthwhile for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in discovering a different midfield option.
The cold, cavernous streets of Nur-Sultan don’t usually lend themselves to discovery but Manchester United’s taxing trip to Kazakhstan might have offered up Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a pleasant surprise.
Despite losing in the Europa League Solskjaer saw that some of these United kids might just have what it takes for a long-term future at Old Trafford. He even found a short-term option that could offer his side something they’ve been lacking this season.
The midfield has been a conundrum Solskjaer has been trying to solve all season. The lengthy injury to Paul Pogba – set to return next week – hasn’t helped in that regard, but other than Scott McTominay, now injured himself, nobody has made much of a claim to be running affairs in the middle.
Often the United manager has had to plump for the least worst option – a situation the country can now sympathise with ahead of the General Election – but in Astana he saw a teenage tyro who might just give him a different option.
It’s been £52million man Fred who has tended to partner McTominay in one of the deeper roles and while he’s finally shown signs of improvement, he remains inconsistent. The Brazilian and the Scot, an unlikely duo at the best of times, have proved to be tenacious at times, but neither has the passing range to really dictate affairs for United.
In McTominay’s absence it was Andreas Pereira who sat alongside Fred at Bramall Lane last week, but United’s midfield were comprehensively bested by Sheffield United in the topsy-turvy 3-3 draw.
Since Pogba’s injury United have been lacking a midfielder who can probe from deep. When teams try and contain United they don’t have a player who can pass forcefully through the lines, finding Daniel James, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial quickly and efficiently.
But on the synthetic pitch of the Astana Arena it was Welshman Dylan Levitt who showed he might just be United’s most creative passer from those positions.
Having played the full 90 minutes in the Europa League Levitt is unlikely to feature against Aston Villa this weekend, but based on his United debut he should be edging closer to more first team recognition sooner rather than later.
The 19-year-old has already been a part of three full Wales squads under Ryan Giggs before making his United debut and it’s something of a surprise that it’s taken so long to see him in senior club colours, given he is highly-rated by club and country and United’s paucity of options in midfield.
Against Astana he showed United what they’ve been missing. His 104 passes in the game were 20 more than any other player on the pitch and many of them were sharp, forward balls aimed at getting United on the front foot. Only four of those passes didn’t find their target.
Those figures are far better than United’s midfielders are achieving in Premier League games. Last weekend Fred made 74 passes and Pereira 79, yet those were an advancement on recent weeks, when United haven’t really looked to their midfield to set the tempo.
In the four Premier League games preceding that against Brighton, Bournemouth and Liverpool Fred attempted 46, 62, 44 and 23 passes respectively, while McTominay made 36, 49, 56 and 36 passes.
Given Levitt’s numbers it was no surprise to see United dominate possession on Thursday night. It’s when they’ve controlled possession they’ve struggled at times this season. The pace of that front three can tear teams to ribbons on the break, but against a massed defence United need better passers on the pitch.
That could be where Levitt comes in. He’s had to wait for his United debut, but he could be the start of more regular action after presenting himself as an option currently lacking in Solskjaer’s first team squad.