It’s an ongoing conundrum that has arguably existed at the heart of the Manchester United engine room since captain Roy Keane left Old Trafford a decade ago.
In recent years, they have turned to versatile defenders, lesser-known foreigners, an injury-prone Owen Hargreaves and even brought Paul Scholes out of retirement in an attempt to find a quick fix.
But have the Red Devils finally discovered a solution of sorts by landing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin?
The confirmation of the combined £39.9 million swoop came in the nick of time to allow both players to board the plane for their pre-season tour to the United States, where United fans will get their first glimpse of the club’s latest recruits.
Many supporters have been desperate to see quality over quantity in the middle of the park, a position which has often been overcrowded with too many similar options. However, they may now be satisfied in both areas.
In 2015, the high-profile acquisition of Argentina’s Angel di Maria for a record fee followed the signings of Spaniards Juan Mata and Ander Herrera while the versatile Dutchman Daley Blind offered a more defensive alternative.
Even after last year’s arrivals, there has been an overriding sense that the midfield jigsaw is still incomplete in comparison to the strength of their rivals – something Louis van Gaal has evidently been working hard to address behind the scenes.
In the shape of experienced German international Schweinsteiger and the combative French anchorman Schneiderlin, United have added extra power, strength, depth and technical ability to their number – albeit without a necessary guarantee of goals.
The pair scored nine league goals between them, an above average tally throughout their careers, but their fundamental roles are to provide the craft, solidity and protection to the defence which is frequently understated in a team.
Both played an integral part for their nations at the 2014 World Cup with Schweinsteiger starring for 120 minutes in the final and picking up a winners medal before later being announced as Phillip Lahm’s replacement for the new Germany captain.
He may have progressed beyond his peak years but still has plenty to offer as he embarks on an exciting venture which is likely to be the final chapter in his distinguished career in what is widely regarded as the most competitive league in world football.
After 13 successful trophy-laden seasons at the top of the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, a fresh challenge was needed and, in his own words, there was only one he would accept.
Schweinsteiger’s familiarity to van Gaal from his two-year spell at the Allianz Arena is an advantage and, although his ability to adapt to the rigours of the Premier League and stay injury free is yet unknown, one of the biggest gains to United is his nous in the dressing room with van Gaal describing the 30-year-old as “the ultimate professional”.
It was van Gaal who transformed Schweinsteiger from a winger into a central midfielder at Munich and he is now responsible for, remarkably, making him the first German ever to play for United.
The main provision Schweinsteiger could bring is posing a selection dilemma in the so-called big games, possibly working alongside Michael Carrick in front of the back four, and utilising his experience of tactical awareness and positioning to allow the forward-thinking players the license to hurt the opposition.
As demonstrated against English sides in the Champions League in the past, he can dictate the tempo of tight matches by maintaining possession and finding the elusive pass in between the lines which can prove to be the difference in the final third.
Even the marquee signing of an established world-class player alone can have a huge influence without them kicking a ball by inspiring the current squad to step up a gear and enhance their performance levels.
The presence of Schweinsteiger will bring additional, and always welcome, competition for places among the central midfielders, who are often the subject of criticism from the United faithful for inconsistency and lacking in certain areas such as a goalscoring threat or being too conservative.
In doing so, he can assist other younger players in his position such as Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard to grow in confidence and pass on his breadth of knowledge to help them improve. For £14 million, United have a complete and proven player, who is still near to his best, for a bargain price.
The only significant gamble involved in the move is his continuing fitness battle which has rumbled on over the last five seasons, something which could have been eased amid the high intensity of the English top-flight had he decided to retire from international duty after the blaze of glory in Brazil.
In Schneiderlin, United have arguably secured the services of the Premier League’s second-best deep lying midfielder from last season, behind Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic.
On the evidence of his mercurial and eye-catching displays, the 25-year-old will be worth every penny of the £25 million it took to tempt Southampton to sell him after an initial £20 million fee was rejected.
Although a team effort contributed towards Saints’ surprise march to a Europa League qualifying spot, Schneiderlin was at the heart of their development as he capably took on additional responsibility following the string of senior summer departures, despite being embroiled in his own transfer saga with Tottenham which eventually faded.
Having stayed loyal to the south coast club throughout their meteoric rise from League One since arriving from Strasbourg in 2008, the Frenchman grew in stature and plied his trade as he learned to adapt to different scenarios and retain discipline.
Schneiderlin’s personal statistics are testament to his work ethic, racking up the most tackles won, interceptions made and miles run on a consistent basis to endear himself to the club’s supporters, who voted him their best player in their second season back in the Premier League in 2012-13.
He is a positive bundle of energy and enthusiasm who controls matches with his dynamism, crisp passing and measured aggression, thus befitting the style and approach of a United midfielder with greater expectation and pressure on their shoulders.
It can occasionally count against him as was the case when he was sent off in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea last December for two soft fouls as a result of being too keen to close down the space and time on the ball afforded to the Blues midfield.
One of his biggest assets, however, is his leadership and organisational skills which have been aided by him regularly standing in as Saints skipper in recent seasons and being captain of France Under-21s while his extensive understanding of the other Premier League clubs will be a massive bonus.
Schneiderlin – who said joining United was “an easy decision to make” – could be deployed in a three-man midfield, as he was on some occasions at Southampton, alongside the likes of Schweinsteiger, Carrick, Blind and Herrera. He even found himself on the Saints bench for key games last season, including Liverpool at home and Arsenal away.
It is, however, unlikely that he will be utilised in an advanced midfield berth at any stage, especially with the plethora of other talent at United’s disposal in that position. Nevertheless, it is a role that Schneiderlin has fulfilled sporadically at Saints in previous years but only when Adam Lallana or James Ward-Prowse were unavailable.
Another plus is Schneiderlin’s tender age with his peak years still in front of him in his mid-twenties and more opportunities to come in the France national team, for whom he has earned nine caps to date.
Schneiderlin’s first competitive outing for United might be in the Premier League opener against Spurs, where he would come up against a team he could have joined who is managed by former Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino, who will know more than most how to nullify his effect on proceedings.
Working in tandon with the likes of Steven Davis and Victor Wanyama in a two or three-man defensive shield at St Mary’s, Schneiderlin’s industry and positional sense will stand him in good stead at Old Trafford although his lack of European experience may limit his chances of making an impact in the Champions League should United progress far in the competition.
There may have been other more high-profile midfielders that United could have targeted, particularly given their eagerly anticipated return to the European stage.
But the captures of both Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin suit the philosophy of van Gaal in recruiting ready-made experience whilst thinking of the future. Whether they can both fit into the same team and settle into life at the club is another matter.
He could have dropped interest in one of them when pursuing the other yet decided to seal the deals for both, adding to the already excellent signings of Italian full-back Matteo Darmian and Dutch forward Memphis Depay.
It may also be considered to be a statement of intent, in their eyes of their fellow title contenders, as United seek to end two years without silverware and will at least answer some of the midfield issues they have been faced with for numerous years.