Manchester United will play in the Champions League next season.
A faintly bizarre 4-1 victory over Chelsea on Thursday secured a top-four finish for Erik ten Hag’s men. It will allow senior United staff to initiate their plans for the summer.
Mason Mount appears to be chief among those plans. The 24-year-old was unavailable for Chelsea due to a pelvis injury but remains the man of the moment for both clubs. While Chelsea would like to secure the midfielder’s long-term future with a new contract, Mount is thought to be leaning towards a move to Manchester United in the summer, with talks expected between the two clubs imminently.
One can only imagine what he thought of the first half at Old Trafford, where both sides appeared unsure of how to play when out of possession.
Mount may have found himself swayed by the actions of Casemiro, who headed in Christian Eriksen’s free kick to give United the lead in the sixth minute before providing a majestic lofted through ball just before the half-time whistle. The Brazilian’s pass found Jadon Sancho, who ran in behind Chelsea’s defence before squaring to Anthony Martial for United’s second.
This season has seen several United players improve by playing next to Casemiro. If Mount was to join United in the summer, he too might enjoy the defensive security and line-breaking passes offered by the five-time Champions League winner.
Now that Champions League football has been secured, should Mount and United strike a deal?
His playing profile makes him a natural fit for Ten Hag… if he was joining the coach on his Ajax teams, which came to play a 4-3-3 with midfielders such as Lasse Schone, Frenkie de Jong, Steven Berghuis and Ryan Gravenberch as the box-to-box midfielders. A potential move to Ten Hag’s United side has potential but might not be a seamless adaptation. The most obvious move would be for him to take Eriksen’s space next to Casemiro him in the Starting XI.
If Shaw was to remain an overlapping full-back, he could combine with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho on the left, along with Mount making late entries into the final third. The three United players had varying success against Chelsea on Thursday: Shaw was substituted at halftime as a precautionary measure for a back injury.
Rashford – a first-half replacement for the injured Antony – scored his side’s fourth goal that would cap off the victory. Antony’s injury saw Sancho move onto the right wing, the supposed position he was initially signed to play in during the summer of 2021, and he had one of his better games, attacking the space behind Conor Gallagher and linking up with United teammates.
All three men would find their skillsets complimented by a player such as Mount.
Suppose Ten Hag tasked one of his full-backs to invert and join Casemiro in central midfield. In that case, there is the option of Mount pushing forward to join Fernandes to create the sort of box midfield that have made Brighton, Arsenal and Manchester City so dangerous this season.
Any United move for Mount would be a gamble for the player and club: asking a midfielder most comfortable as a cog in an already well-functioning machine to take on important responsibilities regarding how the entire mechanism works.
Managers including Gareth Southgate and Thomas Tuchel enjoy the 24-year-old because he is a seven-to-eight out of a ten in everything you want from an attacking midfielder.
They repeatedly select him because he is an eight-to-nine out of ten in the defensive tasks.
The biggest games of Mount’s career have often seen him tasked with winning the ball off the opposition team’s deepest midfielder before driving forward and helping his team in counter-attacking movements. It worked well in Chelsea’s 2021 Champions League Final, with Mount and N’Golo Kante scuppering Manchester City’s plans. It did not work as well in the Euro 2020 Final, where Mount was overwhelmed by Marco Verratti interchanges and clever movement with Jorginho.
Chelsea looked poorer on Thursday in part due to Mount’s injury. In his absence, Fernandes has greater freedom in central midfield, allowing him to attack Frank Lampard’s side at will. Conversely, United looked soft in central midfield partly due to Eriksen’s lack of mobility and physicality when defending.
Ten Hag’s men won 4-1 on Thursday because they were better than a slipshod and demotivated Chelsea. In securing a Top Four finish and winning the League Cup, Ten Hag has exceeded many fans’ preseason predictions for 2022-23, but there are further challenges to come.
“This club belongs in the Champions League,” Ten Hag said at full time. “Finishing in the top four was the main objective. The competition is tough, there are many teams with really good squads, good managers and high budgets.
“For this moment it is the maximum, but we want more and I don’t have a lot of patience. Standards have to go up. Manchester City are playing outstanding football but we have a way to go.”
United will now finish the season with at least 72 points, an impressive points but some way behind the league champions. The United manager is aware of what is needed to leap top four to title contenders (He would say “We need better players if we want to compete for the highest” when asked about squad building at full time).
Mount could be one potential signing to help bridge that gap. The Englishman could provide the same progressive passing, set-piece delivery and late entries into the box of Eriksen while improving United’s defensive intensity when out of possession. Still, there is some method in United’s pursuit of someone younger than Eriksen who can provide similar attacking output and superior defensive resistance.
The question is whether “better than Eriksen/United’s other box-to-box midfielders” is a good enough benchmark for what United want to achieve in future seasons.
(Photo: Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)