Manchester United have hit a bump in the road. Although their league season has been pretty decent so far, the last month or so has been rough. A 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool in October has been followed by a serious interruption to the momentum that had been generated by a favourable set of fixtures and some frightening goalscoring form early on.
The 2-1 loss to Huddersfield Town that followed was disastrous. They just about righted the ship in the Champions League and scraped a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in the league, but the toothless, limp performance at Stamford Bridge in their 1-0 loss to Chelsea last weekend highlighted—among other things—some of the limitations of the squad.
In deciding the under-the-radar player United most need, we should use a process of elimination. First off, all the names people associate with a potential move to Old Trafford are discounted, so no Antoine Griezmann, no Mesut Ozil, etc.
The second thing is that we should not choose a player in an area in which United are already strong. Truthfully, though, that only really excludes goalkeepers, left-sided forwards and centre-forwards for sure.
There is an argument to be had about centre-back, where, in numbers at least, manager Jose Mourinho is well-stocked, though it is not yet clear just how good most of them are. Every other position on the pitch is probably a contender for a need to strengthen.
Full-back is a big problem. On the left, Luke Shaw's troubles have meant a string of underwhelming understudies have stepped into the role. Each of Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young have had good games there, but not with any kind of consistency and certainly not at a level that would compare to the expectations of elite clubs around Europe. Shaw could be that player, but it is hard not to give up hoping that will ever happen.
On the right, Antonio Valencia is probably good enough that his position does not warrant "most crucial upgrade" status, but he has his share of problems, too, particularly in terms of consistency of delivery, which causes a lot of frustration in tight games. In fairness to him, though, he is expected to be a right flank unto himself and that would change a lot were there a natural right-sided forward in the squad—a winger, even, as radical as that idea seems.
Given how much time Juan Mata has spent there, wide right must surely be a contender for the spot most in need of work. It is not that Mata is not an excellent player—he is—rather that he is not a natural in the position.
Things at No. 10 have been kind of a mess. Mourinho has decided Henrikh Mkhitaryan is his go-to guy in that role, with Jesse Lingard as understudy. Given Mata is part of United's squad and never gets used there, this tells us something definitive about the kind of No. 10 Mourinho wants.
Mata's brand of smart passing and finishing ability cannot compete with the quicker men the manager clearly prefers. Given Mkhitaryan's form has collapsed into a smouldering ash pile since Paul Pogba got injured, and given that Lingard is a willing runner and superb squad member, but hardly the kind of player you should be building an attack around, improvements in this area could bear fruit.
But the position that has cost United most severely this season is central midfield. While they possess one of the world's best in Pogba, and the arrival of Nemanja Matic granted Pogba a new lease of life, the bench is pretty thin. Last season's Player of the Year, Ander Herrera has fallen off a form cliff, and though Marouane Fellaini has put in some fine performances this season, history tells us that will not last.
Scott McTominay has looked assured when he has played, but he is not quite ready for prime time yet, particularly in a struggling unit. And Michael Carrick is injured and probably in the last few months of his United career.
Given that this is the key position on which United's downturn in form has swung, it makes sense to pick a player in that spot. But, of course, there are some specific parameters. It cannot be a player with whom United have already been linked, but the biggest challenge is that they cannot necessarily expect to start every game. They are in the squad mainly to make sure an injury to Pogba is not a total disaster.
Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe suggested perhaps the perfect candidate for the role. He is a lower-profile player with a big talent, who might be prepared to take a gamble on a move to a bigger club. He has a lot of Premier League experience and could compare Europa League medals with much of the rest of United's squad.
Steven N'Zonzi spent three seasons at Blackburn Rovers and three more at Stoke City before his move to La Liga. At Sevilla, his stock has risen. He was a key part of their squad that won the third of their three consecutive Europa League titles and made the squad of the season for the 2015/16 version of that competition.
His stock has risen so far that in February, Sid Lowe wrote in the Guardian that "Barcelona saw [in him] an alternative to Sergio Busquets, while Juventus, Arsenal and Manchester City were reportedly interested."
He was an important part of Sevilla's ball-winning unit. His tackling was consistent—he succeeded with an average of 1.9 tackles per 90 minutes in the Europa League, of just 2.1 attempted. He averaged 2.3 interceptions per 90 minutes and 2.2 clearances. He was involved a lot on the ball, too, averaging 57.1 passes per 90 minutes, of which more than 80 per cent found a fellow Sevilla player.
Perhaps the change in style after the arrival of Jorge Sampaoli in the summer of 2016 is why his pass completion jumped to just under 90 per cent in La Liga last season, and he has nudged above that this season. He is not a destroyer by trade.
Indeed, Lowe quoted Sevilla's then-sporting director Ramon "Monchi" Rodriguez as saying "Steven's a player who has to continually fight against his appearance, His profile's that of an eminently physical player, fight and strength, when although it's true he has those qualities, his principle characteristic is his use of the ball and technical quality. That's why we signed him and where he makes the difference."
Of course, N'Zonzi would not be an exciting signing in terms of profile, but many fans were doubtful of the benefits of signing Matic, and he has probably been the team's best player of the season so far.
A two featuring Matic and N'Zonzi would be a pretty big upgrade on what is happening at the moment. And, of course, once Pogba is back, N'Zonzi would be excellent cover for Matic. As well as his defensive aptitude, he shares Matic's ability to beat a man, averaging just under a dribble per appearance in last season's La Liga campaign.
He is also durable, something Mourinho would no doubt appreciate. In his three seasons at Stoke, he made 35, 34 and finally all 38 available league starts. He might not have been there during the peak Tony Pulis, Rory Delap era at Stoke, but they were still a physical side.
So, a player no one is linking with United who would fit the squad needs pretty well, and fill out the side with a bit of genuine class on the ball and a lot of defensive solidity. Not a bad pick.
But United probably need to be looking to shop at the top end of the market, and that means one of the players they have been linked with in the past. Too much of both Sir Alex Ferguson's late-period transfer-market activity and the activity that has followed his departure has been prepared to accept "OK" rather than trying to bring in some of the best.
The clubs with which N'Zonzi has been linked suggest he might be among that crop, though few would have predicted that in his Blackburn and Stoke days. United would have to make sure before they pulled the trigger on a player who would still represent a sizeable gamble.
Quotations obtained firsthand where not otherwise stated.
Advanced data per WhoScored.com.