It is no great secret that Manchester United were poor without Paul Pogba. Twelve matches, spanning from September 12th to November 18th, saw the United midfielder sidelined with a hamstring injury. During this time, Manchester United trudged unconvincingly to nine wins, but they drew against Liverpool and lost to both Huddersfield and Chelsea.
Any other year and United supporters are breathing heavy sighs of relief, considering that in those nine wins, United managed a win against Tottenham Hotspur and decisive Champions League victories. However, Pep Guardiola’s rejuvenated £200M Manchester City squad managed to widen the gap at the top of the Premier League by eight points. Even with poor performances against two rivals, the Huddersfield loss was felt the hardest, and the performance was absolutely dreadful. Manchester United often looked as though they were two squads on the pitch, separated by a wall of opposing midfielders and nothing to connect them together into a coherent attacking force.
This area of the game, transitioning and progressing from defense through the midfield to the attackers was where Pogba’s loss was felt the most. With Pogba in the squad, United were able to create 7.8 more chances per game, and consequently, United’s average goals per game nearly doubled from 1.6 to 3. Pogba is one of those rare players that can play box to box for 90 minutes and influence the game anywhere on the pitch, but in a team that is severely lacking consistent form in the number ten position, he gives the electricity and creativity that allows Manchester United’s spine to function.
Ironically, it was at about this time last year when the pundits came out in full force against Pogba, citing his inability to live up to his then-record-breaking £86M transfer fee. Of course, with Paris Saint-Germain’s monstrous £198M signing of Neymar, it appears as though United received a bargain. Nonetheless, he was criticized during United’s slow start in 2016 for a lack of discipline, which is sometimes seen as something of a requirement in English football.
It is important to note that Pogba’s effectiveness in his ability to have the freedom to be anywhere on the pitch relies partly on his midfield partners. He relied upon Michael Carrick last year, and this year, José Mourinho has brought in Nemanja Matić to hold the midfield. Matić may prove to be Mourinho’s greatest signing of 2017 as he has helped bring out the best in Paul Pogba. Manchester United legend Paul Scholes, a vocal critic of the deal to bring Pogba to Manchester United, as well as Pogba’s undisciplined playing style at the beginning of last year, said this in an interview with the Independent at the time of his injury:
“Pogba and Matić seem to be the first choice but Mourinho can mix and match; the midfield should be as good as any… Before his injury, you could see United were winning, and winning quite comfortably. I think the addition of Matić has helped him and given him that bit of freedom - he’s scored a couple of goals already and a couple of assists… Last season was tough for him but there was always going to be a settling-in period. There were two or three other players along with him who took a little while to settle down. With Matić coming in this year and the other players a year down the road I think we’ll see the improvement.”
With Pogba back in the lineup, Manchester United have already seen a return to form in the Premier League, having scored nine goals in the team’s last three league matches. Now, the big test for Manchester United is in front of them, with games against Arsenal and Manchester City in the next two weeks.
Manchester City should drop points at some point this season, but something has to be said for keeping destiny in your own hands. With a five point margin, United would have left their potential in the league to their own performances and to the derby. As it stands, United are counting on City losing a bit of form, and Pep Guardiola’s men have shown no signs of slowing down.