Football

Man United might know their perfect Nemanja Matic replacement

Erik ten Hag’s big challenge this summer is that he must not only improve a Manchester Utd side that has underperformed so poorly this season, but he must also improve it while replacing a cluster of players who will leave for free once the transfer window opens.

Signing a new midfielder was labelled the ‘biggest’ issue by club sources even before Nemanja Matic made it public that he would leave at the end of the summer, while there was always an acceptance that Paul Pogba would not be signing a new deal at the club.

In an ideal world, Man United would sign two top-class central midfielders this summer to compensate for those two exits, with Donny van de Beek and James Garner both contenders to bolster the squad with improved roles under the new manager next season.

It doesn’t always work that way, though.

Man United are still exploring a possible move for Frenkie de Jong this summer, but such a move is complicated given the uncertain future of the club under his former manager and the fact he doesn’t exactly want to leave Barcelona.

A deal for Kalvin Phillips was also being worked on, though that has become a lot more difficult to complete after Leeds remained in the Premier League on the final day. The Leeds-born battler is also believed to be of interest to Manchester City, a move which makes far more sense for him.

Declan Rice is still somewhat of a dream acquisition but would take a budget-blowing club-record fee this summer and West Ham are under absolutely no pressure to sell him.

It means United might have to get creative if they are to address their midfield issues this summer, and Chelsea star N’Golo Kante is certainly one player worthy of consideration at the very least.

At the age of 31, Kante is by no means a long-term solution for United, but he could represent a valuable short-term one to effectively replace the experience and defensive expertise of Matic at the base of midfield.

Signing the Frenchman this summer could prove a cheap alternative to other midfielders under consideration and would act as the perfect mentor should United choose to sign another raw defensive midfielder, who could then learn his trade at a slower pace before replacing him.

Kante’s arrival could also serve as the ideal adviser for youngster Garner, who could act as an understudy himself and learn from one of the all-time greats about mastering the deep role in the Premier League.

However, there is an obvious reason to be cautious.

The Chelsea star missed 12 games this campaign due to injury, excluding the four he sat out due to positive COVID-19 tests. Over the last three seasons, Kante has experienced 14 separate injuries.

Kante is more susceptible to muscle injuries because of his relentless running approach to the game, but speaking last week, Thomas Tuchel highlighted the worry he has about the Frenchman’s fitness issues.

“It’s hard to live with because it’s important for him to be there and to have the rhythm,” he said. “He constantly starts getting rhythm, and once he has rhythm, he gets a little injury and he’s out again.

“This guy who gets man of the match in every Champions League game is only here for 40-something per cent of the games. This is huge for us. We’ll do everything to solve it. I don’t blame him, but it’s a concern.”

But if he can be managed carefully, then Kante remains a priceless asset to any side that can accommodate him.

Tuchel added: “We miss him a lot because he brings something that is unique in world football, he has that ability to lift everybody up and make the difference and this is the challenge for him and for us.”

With the preference to sign two midfielders this summer, United could do far worse than Kante as one of the potential pair who arrive this summer.

There needs to be a sense of realism about just how much he will be able to offer next season and an understanding that he might well miss a few matches through injury if his woes continue.

But for the unique qualities and experience he would bring to the team, he might still be a priceless acquisition.

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