Manchester United still have an excessive injury list, with players such as Phil Jones, Luke Shaw and World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger all currently sidelined. Despite this, central defender Paddy McNair has been limited to just eleven first-team appearances so far this season.
The emergence of teenage duo Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson from the club's academy as a result of these injuries has only added to the competition for places within Louis van Gaal’s squad. However, United might be able to use McNair in a different role moving forward, one which mirrors that of Tottenham’s Eric Dier.
McNair at international leveI
The current Northern Irish squad is packed full of experienced Premier League defenders like 36-year-old Gareth McAuley, the versatile Jonny Evans and Watford’s Craig Cathcart, with the latter duo both former United players.
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Consequently, manager Michael O’Neill started to use McNair as a holding midfielder towards the back end of their Euro 2016 qualification campaign and did so with great success. Northern Ireland, like England, will be heading to France this summer for their first major tournament in 30 years.
Ever since McNair made his first-team debut for Man United back in September 2014, the youngster has proved himself to be very composed on the ball and shown that he possesses some excellent defensive instincts. McNair stays cool under pressure, doesn’t dive recklessly into tackles, and at 20, you would think that he has the energy to press the opposition effectively and get around the pitch if he was pushed into midfield.
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At the beginning of the season Mauricio Pochettino decided to convert centre-back Eric Dier into a defensive midfielder and now both Tottenham and England are reaping the rewards of that positional switch. The 22-year-old has started every Premier League match so far this term and he even scored England’s winner against Germany in Berlin last month, his first international goal.
Being a natural centre-half, Dier has the awareness to snuff out opposition attacks and the physical presence to dominate battles in the middle of the park. The former Sporting Lisbon man acts as a screen in front of the back four and protects his centre-backs incredibly well.
What does McNair think?
Currently at a crossroads in his Manchester United career, McNair himself has said that he wants the chance to play in a midfield role for the Red Devils. As per the Metro, the 20-year-old said, “I started playing centre-back and maybe now people see me as a centre-back but personally I think I’m more of a midfielder.”
He continued, “If I had the chance to play the holding midfield role at United that would be fantastic. If I’m told though to play centre-back, right-back or whatever, I’ll be happy enough because I want to play games.”
It’s worth noting that McNair played in midfield for youth team Ballyclare Colts before being converted into a defender when he joined United by their under-18s manager Paul McGuinness.
Midfield is where his future lies
Following McNair’s performance from midfield for Northern Ireland against Wales last month, O’Neill claimed that midfield could be where McNair’s future lies. McNair scored the winner in the United under-21s’ win over Middlesbrough on Monday, a game in which club captain Wayne Rooney made his long-awaited return from injury, and afterwards coach Warren Joyce expressed his belief that McNair can play further forward.
There’s every chance that deploying McNair in a holding role just in front of the defence could be a move which allows the young Northern Irishman to finally become a first-team regular for Manchester United, in the same way that Dier has cemented his position at White Hart Lane this season.