Manchester United are second in the Premier League. They sit five points behind their neighbours City, while a flawless European campaign sees the Red Devils top of their group, having won all four of their matches so far. They’re through to the quarter-finals of the League Cup (I refuse to call it the Carabao Cup) as well. Seems like a great position to be in, right? Not if you’ve been reading or watching the media’s coverage of United’s season so far. A draw away at Liverpool, and an admittedly poor defeat to Huddersfield, were all it took for the knives to be sharpened. While this is just another example of the ridiculous press coverage of football in Britain, what cannot be denied is that the quality of United’s football has significantly declined from earlier in the season. And the single biggest contribution to this has been the continued absence of Paul Pogba.
Yes, United’s 90 million man is integral to how they play. Shocking, isn’t it? The Frenchman seems to be a victim of hyperbole; while he was nowhere near as bad last season as he was made out to be, his early season form sent many United fans into paroxysms of glee not seen since the likes of Ronaldo and Cantona strutted their stuff at Old Trafford. However, Paul Pogba is extremely important to United’s style of play under Jose Mourinho, and we detail the how and why here.
He can dribble quite well
Yes, this is an overtly simplistic description of one of Pogba’s skills, but it is precisely what United’s present midfield set-up lack: the ability to break through opposition ranks and potentially create space. Since Nemanja Matic’s arrival, United’s midfield has been transformed, and the Serb gives Pogba the platform to play his way. Integral to that is Pogba’s ability to go past or through players with his skilful feet, a facet of his football that is perhaps not recognized too much. In my opinion, Mousa Dembele, of Tottenham, is the only player in England who can compare to Pogba’s dribbling ability, for a central midfield player. It serves an extremely important purpose: it draws defenders towards him, potentially creating space for his fellow attacking colleagues. In its absence, opposition sides find it easy to sit deep and stay compact against United, who have struggled to break down such defences with a midfield of Matic and Herrera, both of whom stay deeper than Pogba does.
He brings the best out of Mkhitaryan
It was no fluke that Henrikh Mkhitaryan played some of his best football since arriving in Manchester in the early part of the season. Two factors were at play here; firstly, he was playing in his preferred #10 berth, and secondly, Pogba was also in very good form. Again, Nemanja Matic is important here, as he allowed Pogba to play further up the pitch with lesser defensive responsibility since last season. Pogba and Mkhitaryan linked up quite well in the early games, with the Frenchman’s creativity and ability on the ball allowing Mkhitaryan to receive the ball in the areas from where he could do the most damage. In Pogba’s absence, the Armenian is forced to drop deeper to receive the ball, which in turn means that he is often facing too many opposition players to be effective. It is no surprise that Mkhitaryan’s form has tailed off alarmingly since Pogba’s injury.
He can pass quite well
Again, a simplistic explanation of his skillset. But Pogba’s passing is being sorely missed in this United team. Matic and Herrera are no dummies on the ball, but they often require an extra touch, or are simply unable to see and pick out the more difficult passes. Pogba’s ability to do so quite literally helps unlock defences, and again, United’s struggles offensively have been due in no small part to the absence of this skill from their lineup.
In a nutshell, Paul Pogba is a player with a very unique set of skills, especially within the Manchester United squad. United have struggled in an attacking sense without him, and until he returns, fans should expect their struggles to continue. To (mis)use an analogy, he is what fans United’s attacking flames, and in his absence, the fire is burning quite low indeed.