Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once said, and accurately, Paul Pogba is the sort of player you need to build your team around. So why hasn’t he done that?
It’s always been somewhat perplexing, the way Solskjaer lays out his team. It’s a team that relies on quick movement on the break, a few fired passes to catch the opposition while they’re attacking.
There’s nothing wrong with playing fast, counter-attacking football. All great teams need to have that mode in their arsenal.
Sir Alex Ferguson did it fantastically, while Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp implement that system when appropriate.
That’s the key phrase word, appropriateness.
Jose Mourinho aptly touched on this in the very first game of the season, when things were looked so good for Manchester United.
The former United manager noted that it was against defensively compact teams that United would come to struggle and so they have.
United have dominated every game since and saw points dropped sloppily when they ought not to have been. Against Wolves, United had 66% possession and 9 shots. Against Palace, it was 72% and a staggering 22 shots. Away at Southampton, 59% and another astounding 21 shots.
Furthermore, an extremely odd penalty process saw Pogba and Rashford miss, one which would’ve taken the lead and the other drawn them level.
The stats would suggest it’s not the ability to create chances or control a game which is causing United anguish, but we all know stats can be misleading.
After all, in the Premier League from 2017/18 to 2018/19, Pogba registered eight more goals and three more assists than Kevin de Bruyne but nobody will argue who was better for their club.
No, the issue is about how United have set up their team. Pogba, on his day, has the ability to be the best attacking midfielder in the world.
Given the right cover behind him and the freedom to play in the role outside the box, he is truly fantastic when he wants to be.
If Solskjaer really wants to get the best out of the Frenchman, he needs to start building his team around Pogba like he said he was going to do back in July.
What that means is the first name on the teamsheet has to be Pogba in the role behind the striker.
This allows a player of Pogba’s quality to be the missing link in United’s attack. His position further forward ensures he’s present on the counter, a huge asset when considering his range of passing.
On one hand, the fantastic ball for Marcus Rashford’s second against Chelsea. Yet, it’s also the dropped ball just behind defenders, the delicate loft, the delayed reverse outside the box.
All these are tools in Pogba’s possession, and hugely capable of unlocking the teams United struggle to get past.
If United had managed to keep hold of Ander Herrera, arguably the most painful and baffling loss of the summer, their team would have a new look.
The Spaniard just behind Pogba, combined with Scott McTominay, would hardly be an easy obstacle – a fact which would tell Pogba to push forward and give him the confidence he needs to reach his attacking best.
At the moment he’s shackled by having to be the link between defence and attack while he just isn’t suited in that role.
He gives away possession too often in vulnerable positions, his awareness isn’t built to slowly build from deep but rather to press fast and with teammates making runs across and away from him to free up the area around him.
That’s where Pogba’s true value is, and until then, he won’t be the same player at United as he could be.
Again, opportunities are there, that’s true. But what there needs to be is a level head in the team for when the door won’t quite open. If Pogba isn’t playing there, then it needs to be Juan Mata.
Rashford undoubtedly has the potential but he’s wasted in the middle at the moment, particularly at a time when United find themselves struggling for pace out wide.
United are a team with a lot of potential, that can’t be denied. The professed rebuild the club is undergoing just needs to end this season with Champions League qualification and that means fourth place.
However, to do that, they need to start breezing through games such as Crystal Palace at home and against a ten-man Southampton.
Pogba is the key to this breeze and playing him further up will result in a huge gain for the club. It just can’t be done too late nor soon enough.