Of all the areas Manchester United need to strengthen, central midfield is hardly the one that is deserving of any more of Ed Woodward’s erratic attention. Since 2015, the club’s midfield outlay has exceeded £200m – and, if reports of discontent surrounding Paul Pogba are to be believed, that looks set to rise this summer. With the likes of Pogba, Matić and Fred, all of whom were acquired for exorbitant sums, and not to mention the homegrown talents such as Scott McTominay and Jimmy Garner, the Manchester United midfield appears, on the face of it, fairly well stocked.
Yet, with gaping holes evident all over the pitch – centre-back, centre-forward and right-wing the most glaring – United may well be forced into unexpected action in the middle of the park thanks to the myriad of constant rumours and ambiguous statements which have thrown Paul Pogba’s future into doubt once again.
Over the weekend, Pogba played in the opening fixture of United’s Australian tour and refused to be drawn into commenting on his future after the match. All this speculation has allegedly led to the club offering him the full-time captaincy as a gesture of placation. Could, therefore, Pogba and his agent Mino Raiola simply be seeking the leverage with which to manufacture a new contract for the French maestro, or is Manchester United’s World Cup-winning midfielder genuinely wanting out for the second time in a decade?
If he does depart, just how do you even begin to contemplate how to replace a player of Pogba’s calibre? Last season alone, he registered highest in United colours for goals, assists, chances created, successful take-ons and shots on target.
Well, a prudent place to start might be with a man labelled the Paul Pogba of Serbia. A man who, both figuratively and literally, could fill the talismanic Frenchman’s boots: Lazio’s towering, talented, uncompromising midfielder, Why Sergej Milinković-Savić.
The 24-year-old has been a mainstay in something of a resurgent Lazio side over the last three seasons, with the club’s fortunes inextricably linked to his own personal form. Since 2016, the imperious Serb has seen his stock rise exponentially in Serie A, evolving from something of a blunt weapon forced into an ungainly defensive midfield role into an elegant, powerful, all-action midfielder of whom comparisons with Pogba have been rightfully earned. It is thus, with Pogba considering a fresh challenge, according to his agent, that United’s attentions have turned to the Serb.
When Pogba first returned “home” to Manchester United under José Mourinho, much was made of his poor performances that were initially linked to a lack of freedom granted by the Portuguese tactician’s rigid formation. Since then, with a switch to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preference for allowing Pogba something of a free role, while Matic and the eternally hapless Fred provide cover for an equally inept back four, led to a spate of improved performances in the short run.
If Pogba departs, his absence would leave a noticeable hole in central midfield, a hole which could be filled by the considerable talents Milinković-Savić possesses.
Serbia’s international lineage is fractured: from the halcyon footballing days of Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 90s to the era of Serbia and Montenegro with its famed back four, it’s been a long road for Serbia. In that time, prodigious talents emerged from this once-tempestuous Balkan region: Dragan Stojković, Siniša Mihaljović, Dejan Stanković, Nemanja Vidić – and now, potentially the most exciting of them all, Sergej Milinković-Savić.
Like those prodigies that came before him, he carries a stubborn ruggedness for which his nation’s players are renowned, but which is complemented by an elegant, almost poetic, style of attacking football. Steel wrapped in silk.
In gaining Milinković-Savić, United would obtain a player who can take control of the ball in his own third and drive up the pitch, supplying the Red Devils’ plethora of pacey, direct wingers with ammunition for devastating counters. Similar to Pogba, his enormous stature and close control makes him difficult to dispossess, and, again, like the Frenchman, Milinković-Savić has an eye for a pass.
Last season, he averaged the same number of key passes per game as Pogba, the same number of completed dribbles, and had a similar propensity for ball retention. His talent when in possession of the ball is unquestionable.
It would be pertinent to point out that his 2018/19 campaign for Lazio, much like Pogba’s for United, was fraught with criticism from sections of his own fans. Where Milinković-Savić was perceived as a dominant force in the 2017/18 campaign, registering 12 goals in Serie A, his return more than halved amid a downturn in fortunes for Lazio, too.
This would be an area that, were he to make the move from Lazio to Manchester, Milinković-Savić has to improve upon. Twenty-two goals in four seasons with Lazio is somewhat indicative of his initial deployment deep in midfield, but is also illustrative of how he needs to improve on his goal return given he averages nearly three shots on target per game. With Pogba topping the club’s charts last season, goals from midfield are a prerequisite at Old Trafford, although Solskjaer will be looking to the likes of Rashford and Martial to bear more of the burden.
Yet, it would be unfair to conclude that the towering Serb is anything other than an extremely exciting and effective midfielder, who – alongside Pogba – is probably the world’s foremost example of the “complete midfielder”. And he is a footballer who relishes being in the spotlight.
Likened in attitude to Ibrahimović and Pogba and Balotelli, Milinković-Savić is viewed – perhaps harshly by some – as an athlete that is confident to the point of arrogance in his own abilities. Just take, for example, his preference to be addressed by the mononym Sergej; it takes a brave man indeed to follow in the figurative footsteps of Zlatan and Cristiano.
Quick thinking, the capacity to turn in tight quarters and an impressive passing range are abilities you would normally associate with centre-midfielders who lack in physical attributes – think Xavi, Scholes, Pirlo – and while it would be impertinent to suggest Milinković-Savić is currently in the same stratosphere as those illustrious forebearers, he is in possession of similar talents as well as being blessed with imposing physical features.
At six-foot-three, he is well into the Jaap Stam territory of looking like he could play in the back row of South Africa’s rugby team. With this great height comes great aerial responsibility; he wins more than half of his aerial duels – a facet that is lacking from Pogba’s game.
On top of this, it is easy to see the similarities with United’s current number six by the way Milinković-Savić pivots on the ball, keeping opposition midfielders at bay with an outstretched arm and opening up space for an out-ball. In fact, one of the giant Serb’s favourite traits is to use his strength to hold up the ball in and around the box, laying it off for oncoming midfielders to strike at goal. Like a Fellaini with tangible pedigree.
It is evident that the footballing talent is present, and there already exists a link, albeit a tenuous one, between United and the Milinković-Savić family. His younger brother, Vanja, signed for the club in Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge and remained in Manchester for a year before being sent back out on loan to Vojvodina and eventually released.
However, though Milinković-Savić would provide the attacking impetus in this Manchester United midfield, his abandonment of his defensive duties would be a cause for concern, especially considering the frail screen that Fred and an ageing Matić provide for whichever centre-back pairing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer manages to cajole onto the pitch.
As such, in a cruel case of hindsight, Milinković-Savić would probably have worked best in a midfield three, an inverted triangle, in front of the recently departed Ander Herrera; someone who is willing to do the shuttling across the pitch, snuffing out opposition attacks and recycling the ball selflessly. Much like Pogba, Milinković-Savić operates best with a solid screen behind him.
If reports are to be believed, United have been monitoring the player for two years. He was a target for incumbent manager José Mourinho, and this interest has remained despite the Portuguese’s departure before Christmas in 2018. While it is reported that Lazio chairman Claudio Lotito has been holding out for a fee of £90m, it seems United value him at closer to £70m – still hardly an insubstantial fee for a player with only 12 international caps.
But, while £70m would seem steep, time is on Milinković-Savić’s side. He is still only 24 and his development has risen steeply since his move to Lazio from Genk in 2015. Powerful and poised, he would provide a more than able replacement for Pogba, and should, in all seriousness, be considered even if Pogba doesn’t move on this summer.
Noises of discontent have been circulating from the Pogba camp for some time now and, with lofty ambitions that have yet to be matched in his time back in Manchester, when he does eventually move on, it would be irresponsible of United – although not unsurprising – to fail to move on a player who seems a comfortable fit for the club.
Considering the enormous financial power that Manchester United wield, it wouldn’t exactly be taxing to part with £70m for a midfielder that is genuinely one of the most promising talents, not only in Serie A but in Europe, but with the rumour mill speculating that Harry Maguire is set to move to Old Trafford for an eye-watering £80m, it may be that Milinković-Savić will only make the trip to Manchester if a certain Pogba departs. Until then, there’s a midfielder on the verge of being world-class just begging to be snapped up.
By Josh Butler @JoshisButler90