Manchester United have found the perfect alternative to Fred and Scott McTominay duo

It’s starting how much one player’s absence can make such a difference.

Manchester United managed to escape from Madrid on Wednesday with their Champions League last 16 tie still level but they were extremely fortunate.

While plenty of players vastly underperformed on the night, and the risk to play Victor Lindelof at right-back backfired, it was the gaping chasm in midfield that made United so vulnerable to Atletico Madrid.

Scott McTominay had been taken ill before the game and, as a result, United were without their midfield general.

Instead, United lined up with Fred in a holding role with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes on either side of him. They both had poor games and Fred — who plays better in a more advanced position in any case — was over-stretched as he had to deal with Atletico’s dominating midfield troika, as well as attackers Joao Felix and Angel Correa who continued to drop deep into his zone.

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McTominay is by no means a perfect defensive midfielder, but he has taken to the role admirably under Ralf Rangnick and it was clear how important he has become with how easily Atletico controlled most of the game and launched attack after attack.

He’s the glue that keeps them just about together and without him they came unstuck.

This is an Atleti side that, though reigning La Liga champions, have been a shadow of their former selves this season, almost certainly surrendering their title and had lost to the bottom of the Osasuna table in the very same ground just the week before. Without even having a shot on target.

Even at their glorious peak, Diego Simeone’s side were not renowned for their attacking might, but for 80 minutes against United they looked restored to something resembling their past glory and ripped through their opponents at will.

The excellent Renan Lodi set up Joao Felix’s bullet diving header to open the scoring after six minutes and Atletico went on to have enough chances to not only win the game but perhaps even the tie.

Yet it was Rangnick’s meticulous substitutions that for the second time in a week turned the tide and, while Anthony Elanga rightly earned the headlines after scoring the equalizer just five minutes after coming on, the introduction of Nemanja Matic was the most important.

Bringing on the Serbian, as well as full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles, may have looked perplexing when United were in need of a goal. But Matic’s arrival allowed for United to finally shore up their midfield and get a hold of the Atleti trio that had controlled the game up until that point.

Matic brought a balance that was severely lacking and was able to be the dedicated sitter, which freed Fred to zip about the pitch more freely. It directly led to the equalizer as the Brazilian was in a more advanced and wide position when he passed the ball onto Fernandes who slipped Elanga through.

United have tried excessively over the last six years to use Pogba in a deep position in the midfield, but Wednesday night showed again why it leaves them too open, especially against elite opponents. They can’t make the same mistake again.

Nemanja Matic in action for Manchester United against Atletico Madrid
Nemanja Matic in action for Manchester United against Atletico Madrid

Though he has never been blessed with pace, Matic is now approaching 34 and is clearly getting slower. He is no longer able to start more than one game a week.

But he showed in Madrid that he still has qualities — defensive discipline, tactical acumen, composed and simple passing — that can be of huge benefit to the side when required and go some way to negating the loss of McTominay.

Should McTominay still be unavailable for the weekend’s match against Watford, and for any others going forward, then a defensive-minded midfielder must play alongside Fred and the only option is Matic.

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