August 16, 2017
Manchester United have loomed in transition for four seasons now, but the light at the end of the dark tunnel seems to be within sight as Jose Mourinho begins his second season at Manchester United. Unfortunately, due to the time spent in transition, very few of the best players in world football currently ply their trade at Old Trafford.
One, and potentially the only one who does, is Paul Pogba, Manchester United’s youth graduate midfielder who signed for a club record £89 million last summer. Pogba, 24, seems to be leading the next generation of future world beaters at United, and he is already on the brink of greatness.
After United’s friendly against Barcelona, Mourinho was quick to emphasize that very few United players were at the level of the best sides in the world, but he mentioned Pogba as one who certainly is of the highest calibre in world football.
“Lionel) Messi and Neymar, there is only one; there is not two. (Luis) Suarez, (Andres) Iniesta, (Gerard) Pique, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Gareth) Bale, (Luka) Modric, Toni Kroos; there is only one so they can only play for one club, not for two clubs.
“We can’t have them, they belong to the clubs. But I have to say that Paul Pogba showed the level… he showed he belongs to that level.”
Pogba showed his consistent world class quality last season at Old Trafford, in which he was one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, but a mixture of bad luck and a few extenuating circumstances prevented him from being one of the best midfielders in the world.
Against West Ham on Sunday, he showed his true colours, scoring a goal to complete a masterclass against a side that didn’t have the requisite quality to contain him. This tactical success brought to light three factors that will determine Pogba’s performance this season, and perhaps in every season to come.
Those factors are the consistency of the other midfielders at the club, particularly defensive midfielders, Pogba and his teammates’ ability to finish chances, and the impact Pogba has on United winning the biggest of matches, especially in the Champions League.
Pogba’s best form last season coincided with the performances of Michael Carrick at the heart of United’s midfield. When Carrick performed well, Pogba and Ander Herrera had the basis to move forward and create chances for United, receiving the ball in prime position to control the match.
Unfortunately, Carrick’s dwindling form as his career winds down was an issue for a United side that lacked alternatives last season, resulting in the deployment of Marouane Fellaini in defensive midfield, if anybody.
Fellaini was defensively sound for the most part, but it was evident once he received the ball that defensive midfield isn’t his natural position, as he struggled to distribute the ball and receive the ball with the fluidity of Carrick.
Herrera and Pogba offered more than enough to control the midfield by themselves, but the result was a sacrifice of attacking responsibility as both players had to move deep to collect the ball in the revised 4-2-3-1 shape. However, additions made this summer should bring an end to the (compromising) use of double-pivot formations.
One major aspect of Pogba’s performance against West Ham was the fact that he was freed by new signing Nemanja Matic, who is known for his ball-winning, consistent passing, and overall ability in defensive midfield. Matic’s signing will be important for both Herrera, who will be able to play almost exclusively as a box-to-box midfielder, and Carrick, whose influence can be managed to a fewer amount of games.
Should there be a problem, Mourinho tested returning loanee Andreas Pereira in defensive midfield, and implied that new centre-back signing Victor Lindelof could also be a potential option in midfield. Thus, Pogba should have the basis to succeed throughout the season.
With a better defensive midfielder, Pogba will be able to move forward even more to create and score goals. However, this will be meaningless if he and his teammates do not improve the woeful finishing on display last season.
Pogba created countless exquisite chances for teammates that didn’t end up in the back of the net last season, but with improved finishing, his assist tally should improve significantly. Combine this with the fact that he scored nine goals despite hitting the post nine times, and he could be involved in more than thirty goals next season.
Often, because Pogba wasn’t on the scoresheet and/or United didn’t win the match, his performance wasn’t recognized fully last season. This could be much less of a problem if he and United’s other stars finish their chances the way they did against West Ham.
Speaking of the scoresheet and recognition of his performances, there is a common misconception that Pogba was poor in big matches last season, and while this was often due to ineffective defensive midfielders and finishing chances, he often played his part in the big matches.
However, without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is almost certainly United’s talisman, the big name under the spotlight on the pitch, and he will need to play more than his part if he is to be recognized as one of the best in the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored 8 goals against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League to carry his team over the line, and while Pogba, a midfielder, will not be putting the ball in the back of the net, he needs to stamp his authority on the midfield and give his forwards a platform when United are pinned back.
This will be an even more prominent theme this season with United pitted against some of the best sides in the Champions League, a competition in which United will need multiple miracles to triumph. Everyone will be turning to Pogba when the going gets tough, but can he deal with the pressure?
Pogba will always be an excellent player for United, but if he wants to be one of the best in the world, he will need his fellow midfielders to help him, he and his teammates will need to finish chances, and most importantly, he will have to change major European matches to help United regain elite status in Europe.
The fact this conversation exists when Pogba is only 24 is a testament to his true ability, though- for the first time since Ronaldo himself, United have a special talent truly capable of reaching the pinnacle of football.