It’s Manchester United’s most pressing need as the Erik ten Hag era at Old Trafford gets underway.
A midfielder, or ideally two, to replace the departing Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata, finally solving a shortcoming in the United squad that has festered for several years now.
Their lack of a top class defensive or central midfielder – with Fred and Scott McTominay the usual combination – has again been brutally exposed by quite a few opponents in the underwhelming season that has just finished.
Sportsmail assesses some of the possible targets in this problem position and United’s chances of signing them.
New Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag will need to bring in a midfielder or two
FRENKIE DE JONG
United’s first-choice target. The Barcelona man knows Ten Hag well having enjoyed a successful couple of years playing under him at Ajax, a time which included their run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019.
Although De Jong has two years remaining on his contract, the Nou Camp club, whose financial problems are well documented, are apparently open to selling him this summer.
They paid Ajax £75million for De Jong back in 2019 and will wish to recoup most, if not all, of that fee given his obvious midfield talent and age of 25.
Despite the personal connection to Ten Hag, United are encountering several obstacles in pulling off what would be their box-office buy of the summer.
De Jong this week made clear his desire to remain at Barcelona, where he is a regular starter in LaLiga and the Champions League.
Frenkie de Jong is a leading target for United but he wishes to stay with Barcelona
‘I prefer to stay with Barcelona. Barcelona is just my dream club. Also from a young age,’ he told ESPN.
‘I’ve never regretted my choice despite the fact that I had hoped for more in terms of prizes that I’ve achieved so far. But I have never regretted my choice.’
You also have to wonder whether a top class player such as De Jong would wish to give up Champions League football with Barca next season for the Europa League at United, who also look some distance away from winning anything.
De Jong was one of two deeper-lying midfield players under Ten Hag at Ajax and would likely play a similar role at United, being exactly what they need right now.
But it’s clear there is a good amount of reluctance on the player’s part that United would have to overcome first.
Reports last weekend suggested that United are interested in signing Chelsea and France midfielder Kante.
The 31-year-old has just one year remaining on his contract at Stamford Bridge though it’s probably unlikely Chelsea would consider selling Kante, especially to a direct rival.
There’s no question Kante remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League – and is therefore highly valued by Thomas Tuchel – but he is increasingly susceptible to injury as he enters the final years of his career.
Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante would strengthen United in defensive midfield but is injury prone now
The season just passed saw his involvement restricted by a knee problem and other setbacks, meaning he started only 21 of Chelsea’s 38 league games. Kante had a lay-off with a hamstring issue the season before that.
Tuchel recently described the midfield workhorse as a ‘key, key, key player’ and ‘the guy who makes the difference’, suggesting he wouldn’t be keen to see him leave.
The tireless endeavour of Kante and his enormous big-match experience would really lift United.
Chelsea’s midfield is also well-stocked, with Declan Rice linked with them and Conor Gallagher returning from his successful loan spell at Crystal Palace. But Jorginho, rather than Kante, would surely be the one sold to make room.
The Portuguese midfielder first came onto United’s radar when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge and they reportedly lodged a £35m offer with Wolves in January that was turned down.
The asking price now seems to have risen to £50m but apparently that hasn’t deterred United, who will make another effort to sign a player who hasn’t been receptive to a contract extension beyond 2024 at Molineux.
Despite unrest among supporters, Wolves seem to have accepted Neves wants to leave and have apparently begun to line up replacements.
Ruben Neves of Wolves has been on United’s radar for some time but may cost £50m
Neves, who scored four times in 36 matches for Wolves last season and fits the vacancy United have in midfield, will be keen to step up to European football.
He will no doubt wish to play at the very top level as he looks towards the Qatar World Cup with Portugal later in the year.
United’s biggest issue is that they’re likely to face competition for Neves from Arsenal and Barcelona.
Almost certainly the best defensive midfield performer in the Premier League right now, Rice has continued his excellent form from Euro 2020 last summer all the way through with West Ham.
In the end, their season went without real reward after they lost to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semi-finals and finished only seventh in the Premier League when the top four seemed a realistic prospect at one stage.
So it may be difficult for the Hammers to convince Rice, who has been linked to Chelsea and Manchester City as well as United, to hang around.
England and West Ham star Declan Rice could command £100m but will be in demand
He won’t depart without them getting a substantial transfer fee, however, with their valuation of the England international north of £100m.
That would represent a club record fee for United, swallowing up most of a transfer budget that has already been restrained by a lack of Champions League football, and really it comes down to whether Ten Hag sees it as worthwhile investment.
On the surface, however, 23-year-old Rice would appear to offer United everything they need in that problematic deep midfield area.
Another summer, another United link with Lazio midfielder Milinkovic-Savic, who seems to have been eyed up by about four Old Trafford managers now.
The Serbian, 27, has just enjoyed a really good season with 11 goals and 12 assists in 47 outings for the Serie A club, who finished fifth to make the Europa League.
Reports in Italy suggest that Juventus, another suitor for Milinkovic-Savic, are more likely to chase Pogba, potentially clearing the path.
Long-standing United target Sergej Milinkovic-Savic celebrates scoring a goal for Lazio
But the issue will be the transfer fee. Italian reports suggest Lazio are demanding as much as £77m for the player, which seems pretty extortionate.
There should be room for United to haggle that down a bit if it comes to it and have leverage in being able to offer Milinkovic-Savic a better salary for the same level of European football next season.
They should also be more likely to offer him Champions League football in the years ahead, a competition the Serb has only played in once.
One of many in the race to sign the £68m-rated Monaco midfielder, United seem to have slipped behind, with Real Madrid reportedly closing in on his signing.
The European champions, more flush with cash than they expected after failing to sign Kylian Mbappe, are in pole position ahead of Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and everyone else.
Real Madrid are in pole position to sign Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni this summer
Real view Tchouameni as a long-term replacement for 37-year-old Luka Modric in their midfield and are throwing plenty of resources at a five-year deal.
To that end, it’s another potential target United are set to miss out on.
United saw at very close quarters how Bissouma can run a midfield when Brighton thrashed them 4-0 at the Amex Stadium during the final weeks of the season.
The 25-year-old Mali international could emerge as a potential option for United, with Bissouma entering the final year of his Brighton contract and clearly capable of playing at a higher level.
Yves Bissouma (left) takes on Scott McTominay during Brighton’s 4-0 thrashing of United
Reports do suggest that Monaco may turn to Bissouma to replace their Tchouameni-shaped hole in midfield and will have plenty of cash to throw at it.
But with Brighton forced to cash in this summer or risk losing one of their best players for nothing, United may be able to get him for somewhere in the £30m-£40m range.
P.S. What about Donny van de Beek and James Garner?
United may not have to spend as much as they thought to improve their midfield this summer, with two players returning from loans potentially able to slot into Ten Hag’s side.
The new boss certainly knows all about Donny van de Beek, having been his manager at Ajax, and so could reignite his United career with a regular central midfield role.
Donny van de Beek worked under Ten Hag at Ajax and could finally kick-start his United career
Van de Beek endured a frustrating time warming the bench under Solskjaer and then a thigh injury wrecked his loan to Everton during the second half of the campaign.
It’s fair to say that if Ten Hag can’t get the best out of Van de Beek, nobody can. If he can’t then United might as well offload a player they spent £40m on.
The other is youngster James Garner, who has just enjoyed a superb season on loan at Nottingham Forest as they won promotion to the Premier League.
The 21-year-old performed consistently well in defensive midfield for Forest and plenty of fans are urging Ten Hag to give him an opportunity to prove he can step up.
21-year-old James Garner performed well for Nottingham Forest as they won promotion