I’m cautiously intrigued by Christian Eriksen

The Telegraph: “Manchester United are pursuing an audacious late move for Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen.

Eriksen is keen for a new challenge and United are interested in trying to strike a deal before the transfer window closes at 5pm on Thursday.”

United’s interest in Eriksen is nothing new. He’s been linked with the club for the better part of a year.

For as good of a player as Eriksen is, I’ve personally never been a fan of United signing him. He’s mostly been linked to the club as a replacement should Paul Pogba leave for Real Madrid. That would be an obvious downgrade, and it’s unclear if Eriksen would be able to carry United the way Pogba did.

Eriksen and Pogba aren’t apples to apples comparisons. Eriksen plays in a more advanced role, either out wide in a front three, or as a number 10 (which Pogba can play as well). Last season saw him often playing in a deeper role to account for all the injuries Tottenham had in midfield.

Christian Eriksen on the attacker template

 

Eriksen on the midfielder template

While it’s true that Eriksen can play as a deeper midfielder, it’s not his best position, and he’s not as good as Pogba is there.

United putting in an 11th hour bid for Eriksen makes sense. Eriksen refused to sign a new contract with Tottenham and has made it clear that he wants to leave. His body language in preseason has been so bad it’s now becoming a concern. That’s probably not a player you’d want around your team, and knowing this United are hoping they can get Spurs to come down on their asking price and get a good deal.

While getting Eriksen at a discount price may look like a great deal, there’s still the question of where does he fit. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit he’d be an upgrade over everyone we have at the no. 10 spot (bar Pogba) but is that necessary?

A combination of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard can probably get that job done. Mata’s creativity will help against teams that sit deep, Lingard will help in big matches when pressing, work rate, and defense all come into play.

United could also play a 4-3-3 and give Pogba a more free role, but that requires bringing in a ball winner to central midfield. And that right there is the problem!

United still don’t have a ball winner in midfield. It’s been a problem ever since Ander Herrera got hurt against Liverpool last March. After signing Harry Maguire that became the team’s number one need, and instead of going after it, they’re once again going after the shiny attacker.

That has basically been my stance on this since United and Eriksen started getting linked together.

Until this morning.

This morning I had my “eureka” moment about an Eriksen Pogba combination.

For starters, Eriksen is a tremendous set piece taker. Not just at shooting them but at crossing a ball in. That’s important because United have no one who can really take set pieces. Marcus Rashford can kinda shoot them, but the fact that I can remember off the top of my head all the good ones he had last year means that there weren’t nearly enough of them.

United also just brought in Harry Maguire who, if given good service, is a tremendous weapon on set pieces. An Eriksen to Maguire combination can make United very dangerous by adding another element to their attack.

On the field, Eriksen’s new ability to drop deep could see him and Pogba rotating who has the freedom to get forward. Eriksen would likely start further up, but he would also be able to drop deep and allow Pogba chances to get forward as well. It’s not a perfect solution to United’s midfield problem, but it’s probably better than Andreas or Fred.

There is one other option. United could adopt Manchester City’s midfield tactics.

Pep Guardiola’s City play a bit of a 4-1-4-1 formation that is highly fluid. When the team attacks, central midfielders Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva push forward, getting into the dangerous positions that make them more effective.

To cover the space vacated by the central midfielders, the teams left back, often Fabian Delph or Oleksandr Zinchenko would step up into the midfield and play as a central midfielder next to Fernandinho. The back four would then become a back three with right back Kyle Walker tucking inside to become the third center back.

Credit to Michael Cox and The Athletic

(Sometimes City would play three center backs with Aymeric Laporte playing left back when defending and one of the center backs stepping into midfield when in possession. For more on this, I highly recommend Michael Cox’s piece on The Athletic yesterday if you’re subscribed.) 

Playing this way would allow Pogba and Eriksen the freedom to get forward and be dangerous attacking threats. There’s just a few problems with that approach.

In order to create space for the midfielders to get forward, City deploy wingers who actually stay wide. United can do that with Daniel James on the left, but they don’t have a natural right winger. They could probably do this with Diogo Dalot or maybe Mason Greenwood, but that would require either dropping Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial.

The other question is who could play as the third center back? With United’s base of players Aaron Wan-Bissaka would be the ideal player to step into midfield next to Scott McTominay, but could Luke Shaw be the third center back? That’s a dicy proposition. (Axel Tuanzebe could possibly be a good LB/LCB hybrid here).

The biggest problem with this approach is the timing. This is a move you would have to make months ago so you could work on the new tactics throughout the preseason.

Adding Christian Eriksen the day before the season means you either have an unnatural fit in your current formation, or you now need to learn an entirely new system after spending a month learning a different one.

Christian Eriksen could definitely add a different element to Manchester United. I’m not going to get my hopes up about signing him, but there is potential here. I’m intrigued, but I’m certainly not sold on it yet.

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