Talking Tactics

How Mainoo has brought control to Man Utd's midfield

By Adrian Clarke 22 Feb 2024
Mainoo Talking Tactics

Adrian Clarke explains how 18-year-old has quickly become a key figure under Erik ten Hag

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Player analysis - Kobbie Mainoo (Man Utd)

Manchester United remain a side who struggle to consistently control matches through assured possession, but there is no doubt 18-year-old midfielder Mainoo has improved their ability to do so.

The teenager only made his Premier League debut in November, but he has instantly brought an air of serenity to the side whenever he has possession.

Calm in tight areas, his temperament and technical ability make him one of Erik ten Hag’s most press-resistant players.

Mainoo has quickly become a must-pick as he moves the ball on smoothly and offers sound defensive attributes too. 

Midfield versatility 

Mainoo looks to be a very adaptable player, somebody who can play as a defensive linchpin or in a box-to-box role, or even further forward as a No 10.

On his debut alongside Scott McTominay in Man Utd's 3-0 win at Everton, Mainoo was exceptional in a holding role.

Allowing McTominay to push on, he prompted well from deep, either in front of his back four or by dropping into it when they had the ball.

Mainoo ventured forward down the right side when he was needed in that area of the field, but the bulk of his work was done within his own half.

Mainoo's passing against Everton
Mainoo v Everton

When Casemiro has been Mainoo’s midfield partner we have seen a slightly different side to the latter's game.

He has been freed up to roam a little more freely, and has shown a penchant for joining in with attacks much higher up the pitch, both on the right and left side.

His sensational individual winning goal in the 4-3 thriller at Wolverhampton Wanderers proved beyond doubt that the academy graduate has a natural all-round skillset.

Waltzing past a string of defenders before curling his shot into the far corner, it was a moment that signalled Mainoo’s arrival as a Premier League star.

Confident ball-carrier

That memorable strike at Molineux came on the back of a beautiful slalom dribble, and it is Mainoo’s trademark to drift past opponents with his wonderful balance and quick feet.

In tight, congested spaces the United whizz-kid is a class apart.

When he is put under pressure, he is unflustered and usually navigates his way out of the situation, losing the ball in just 10.5 per cent of the 190 pressures that he has faced from opponents in the Premier League.

At Luton Town last time out, Mainoo completed six out of seven dribbles, ghosting past his markers with relative ease.

Mainoo dribbles v Luton

While a lot of Mainoo’s distribution is short and safe, as he metronomically feeds the ball to team-mates, he does like to be progressive with the ball at his feet.

He is a young midfielder with the confidence to break lines with a ball carry, either going past players or surging into empty space.

An impressive 45 of Mainoo’s 79 carries have taken him a minimum of five metres towards the opposition goal.

As shown on this Opta Analyst chalkboard below, those moments have occurred all over the pitch. His willingness to travel with the ball inside his own half certainly provides United with a different dimension.

Mainoo ball carries Opta

Mainoo is not yet a prolific ball-winner.

He makes fewer tackles than any of his fellow midfielders, averaging 1.13 per 90 minutes, and his average of 2.47 ball recoveries inside the middle third per 90 are fewer than Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, Sofyan Amrabat and McTominay.  

However, he is the side’s best interceptor, jumping in to make 1.03 steals per match.

Mainoo is not quick. Indeed, he is statistically United’s slowest player with a top speed of 29.86km/hr. But he nonetheless covers short distances efficiently.

These smart interceptions against Aston Villa and Wolves (below) are fine examples of how he likes to break up play.

Mainoo v Villa
Mainoo v Wolves

He showed he has a defensive nose on his debut at Goodison Park too, sprinting back to make a magnificent clearance off the goalline.

At key junctures, and when put under pressure, Mainoo’s decision-making has clarity.

A future international?

Despite playing well in his 13 Premier League appearances so far, his statistics in and out of possession look relatively modest compared to the leading lights who play in his position across the top flight.

To make the step up to international level, with calls for an England cap growing, Mainoo may have to show he can dictate matches with a little more authority in possession.

Right now, for example, he averages just 14.54 successful passes inside the opposition half per 90.

But he is sure to improve in that area, and Ten Hag must be thrilled with how his young prodigy has shown the intelligence and composure to adapt so quickly to life in the Premier League.

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