Following the start to the season that Jose Mourinho’s men had, if anyone would have said that the Premier League title will be won by Man City before the Christmas festivities are over, you’d have been worried about their mental state. But they would have been spot on because Pep Guardiola’s men have been unstoppable this season and in any other season, this would have been one of the hottest title races in recent memory, with probably no more than 7 or 8 points covering the top 5. However, it is not the gap or City’s dominance that is a worry, it is more how United have gone about their business this season, with negative displays against the Premier League elite. The rebuilding of the squad needs to begin now with a clear direction of how this team should be performing moving forward with one key factor in mind: how to get the best out of Paul Pogba.
As with every window, United are currently linked with every player known to man. In reality, the chances of any signings being made are slim whereas the team 15 points better off are reportedly close to to strengthening even further by bringing in Alexis Sanchez on the cheap from Arsenal. Liverpool have already spent a fortune improving their huge weakness with the signing of Virgil Van Dijk and offset that cost with the sale of Phillipe Coutinho for the second largest transfer fee of all time. Like City, they are also linked heavily with further reinforcements, in their case the man is Riyad Mahrez who will help fill the Coutinho void as well as the impending arrival of Naby Keita in the summer (potentially in January). Chelsea have also signed a player in this window, following the signing of the gifted Ross Barkley, who will bring further depth to their attacking department. Yet, the news and rumours of a United squad rebuild are yet to materialise into anything concrete and you would have to say that any of the 4 signings I have just mentioned would probably strengthen the current United squad. Antoine Griezmann was reported to be close to joining the club in the summer before a personal u-turn following Atletico’s transfer ban and now he seems destined to join the Barca revolution and move across Spain to the Nou Camp in the summer. It seems the United transfer options are dwindling as the days pass by and if they are not careful they will enter into the same bracket as Arsenal whereby they will start to struggle to pull in the big names.
The squad is deep but outside of the first 12/13 names on the team sheet. It is certainly lacking in quality. Matteo Darmian looks to have run his course at the club along with Daley Blind. Marouane Fellaini is yet to sign a new contract and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is unlikely to play again past this season. But it is the incomings at the club that should be the key focus both in January and in the summer and if Jose Mourinho takes anything out of this season, then it should be Pogba’s performances playing in a midfield 2, compared to when he plays to the left of a 3 where he flourishes and that alone should be enough to make Mourinho realise that he should revert to a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-1-3. The change is minimal but makes a huge difference to how United play. Quickly looking at 2 stand out games in recent weeks, when playing against a poor Southampton side, Pogba was alongside Nemanja Matic but was far too deep when United were building attacks. The Frenchman possesses a superb passing range but he is wasted playing in a quarterback style position, like Paul Scholes used to find himself in in the latter stages of his career. The problem comes because he is unable to impact the game higher up the pitch and if he does, he is then way out of position if United lose the ball, leaving them exposed. Against the Saints, Pogba looked lost and frustrated and it is no coincidence that United lacked any real attacking threat the longer the game went on. Compare this to the Everton game, which on paper could have been a tough away day following their resurgence under Sam Allardyce, United looked a different team going forward. Mourinho said after the game that due to the absence of Romelu Lukaku, he had to play a different formation, whether this is true or not isn’t important here, the fact is he hopefully realised how to get the best out of Pogba. Playing Matic as the single holding player, with Ander Herrera to the right and Pogba to the left, produced a brilliant attacking display, with the £90 million man at the heart of most of United’s best play. He is a regular menace breaking in to the box from the left, linking up beautifully with his big mates in Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial and ending the game with 2 more assists to his name.
I have been surprised to see United not play this way earlier in Mourinho’s reign. When you pay that sort of money for a player, the team should be built around them. After all, Real Madrid play to get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona play in a certain way to get the best out of Lionel Messi, PSG will now play in a way to get the best out of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and Man City set up to get the best out of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. You will not see Pep Guardiola playing Silva in a 2 in midfield asking him to take the ball off the City defence, asking him to sit deep and have a defensive mindset. Instead, he plays both de Bruyne and Silva either side of Fernandinho and let them impact the game where they do it best: in and around the opposition box. United had a run of games where they faced Spurs and Chelsea with Mourinho reverting to a 3 at the back to go like for like against them. There was some thinking that maybe Mourinho was going to permanently switch to this formation to get the best out of Pogba, given how well he performed in the Juventus side who played the same way during his time in Italy. However, this never materialised and instead moved back to the tried and trusted 4 at the back soon after.
Heading into the January window, it is important that United target the correct players to fit in the correct system. There is far too much mention coming out of Old Trafford that they want a “marquee signing” every window, well how about just making the correct signing. Buying Ronaldo may look good on Ed Woodward’s CV but where would it get United? The same applies to the constant rumours of Antoine Griezmann moving from Madrid to Manchester. A brilliant player, no one doubts that, but where does he fit in to the current United 11? He is unlikely to want to play wide, in which case he would likely be deployed centrally, either alongside Lukaku, in behind him or instead of, with any of these scenarios resulting in Pogba being pushed back alongside Matic and suddenly we are back to square one. Instead, Mourinho should be targeting a right sided player if he deems Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard unable to play there, he probably requires a right back to cover Antonio Valencia and at some stage replace him and he probably needs another striker to take the workload off of Lukaku, assuming he continues to use Marcus Rashford and Martial as the left sided options. The biggest conundrum facing him, is finding a midfield player that can play to the right of Matic in a 3 in the centre of midfield. The talk of United’s interest in Mesut Ozil is, to some, baffling, given some of the German’s lacklustre performances for Arsene Wenger’s men, but at his best, could he play in that position where he will be slightly advanced, linking up with the right sided player and limited need to work back? I am not convinced he is the right man, but at the price they are likely to get him for, if any, it is probably worth the risk. Who else is available to play in that position, as the de Bruyne’s and Silva’s of this world do not come about too often, nor at a good price. Going back to my comments earlier, I thought Ross Barkley could have been a decent signing in this position for a cheap price but there was obviously no interest from United. Looking further afield, Saul Niguez and Koke from Atletico Madrid have both been linked to the club in recent seasons and could both be a brilliant option for that position, however, their availability is unknown. It is also unlikely he will be able to get hold of Luka Modric or Toni Kroos from Real Madrid. The other possibility is Mourinho continues to play the correct formation and see if Herrera or Lingard could play in that position, at least until the end of the season. If they do flourish, he would have given himself great options if he was then able to bring in a top quality signing to be first choice. He will also need to find a solution to replace Pogba if the Frenchman is once again sidelined for any length of time in the coming seasons, as this has seriously impacted this season since his injury.
Although I firmly believe this United side can offer a lot more if they are allowed to, there is also huge room for improvement if they want to return to the European and English elite over the next few seasons. The signing of Pogba last season was the start but Mourinho is yet to still find his best side or really back up the Frenchman’s signing with more world class talent. They definitely exist but it is up to Mourinho and Woodward to look in the right places. I am not sure they even have to go and spend as big as some media outlets are reporting and certainly not a “marquee signing” like PSG and Barcelona are making. The United “marquee signing” is already at Old Trafford, it is about time they start to realise that in order to get the best out of him.