Man Utd are in desperate need of strengthening their midfield – this is why Ryan Gravenberch could be the perfect match
In the Chinese Zodiac, Ryan Gravenberch was a few months out from being born in the year of the snake but it doesn’t stop the midfielder describing himself as one.
The 21-year-old has been linked with Manchester United amid their early-season troubles. Early-season Old Trafford optimism has dissipated somewhat thanks to a pair of poor performances to kick off the new campaign.
The Reds got away with it on opening night, beating Wolves 1-0 despite being second best, but their away woes from last term continued into this with a 2-0 reverse at Tottenham on Saturday despite an encouraging first half. It’s raised more questions than answers for Erik ten Hag with perhaps the most pertinent being the midfield.
Mason Mount was the first summer signing, a player the United boss was determined to sign and delighted to capture. He has the attributes to fit into the Reds system but the early signs of the England international playing in an advanced midfield role alongside Bruno Fernandes with Casemiro sitting have been concerning. It’s no surprise to see United links with midfielders intensify.
And so Gravenberch’s name is back on United’s list, with the Bayern Munich midfielder having struggled for minutes in his first season in Bavaria. He was an unused sub in their season opener and has also been linked with Liverpool. The German giants value him at around £22million while a loan exit has also been mooted given the Netherlands international only arrived in the Bundesliga from Ajax 12 months ago.
And the 6ft, rangy midfielder has compared himself to former Red Paul Pogba, as well as offering his animal comparison. In an interview with Voetbal Primeur, he said: “I am a kind of snake. Long, quite narrow and I slip along everywhere. I can learn a lot from Paul Pogba, he is also a bit of a snake.”
Pogba showed in flashes his world-class ability at United and Gravenberch is of a similar build and can offer the same drive from the middle of the park as the Frenchman. He could provide United with the consistent all-round threat that Pogba failed to do should the youngster move to Old Trafford.
It’s easy to make the leap with United given Gravenberch worked with Ten Hag in the Dutch capital while his capabilities as a box-to-box player would offer the Reds something they currently lack. He offers a left-sided option and can screen a back four as well as retain possession and drive forward.
He is comfortable on the ball and positionally intelligent, vital skills to have in the Premier League. And while he might not provide the goal threat of some of his contemporaries, he could offer a combinational key to United, particularly if the Reds want to play on the counter away from home.
At 15, shortly before he became Ajax’s youngest debutant – no mean feat given the calibre of player produced by the Amsterdam outfit – he was wanted by PSG but opted to stay put, putting his football first.
“He could go anywhere,” his dad, Ryan senior, was quoted as saying at the time. “I saw all the clubs [linked]. Many millions of euros came by, but we discussed that quietly at home. Then we sat down as a family, I explained the situation and finally Ryan gave his opinion. He always said, ‘I’m good at Ajax’.”
The move to a European giant was inevitable and came 12 months ago, four years on from his senior bow. But it hasn’t been plain sailing at Bayern and regular starting opportunities look slim again this term under Thomas Tuchel.
“I just want to play more, preferably at Bayern Munich, otherwise at a club where I play 100 per cent,” he said earlier this year. “That’s where my preference lies, because I don’t want to have another year like the one I’ve had now. One such season is good. I learned a lot, but I want to play football.”
He added, speaking to Voetbal International: “Training and playing at the top level for a year is beautiful and instructive — although it’s mainly training. That has to change next season, I really want to play week in, week out… We just wait and see what happens. But it’s clear that this role does not match my expectations.”
His expectations are to play, United’s expectations are to compete at the top end domestically and abroad. Given the Reds’ early season problems, he could offer an intelligent solution.
Finishing where we started – with the Chinese calendar – Gravenberch’s style mirrors that of the characteristics of his sign (the horse) seen as active and energetic. United could do with exactly that.