Paul Pogba is arguably one of the best attacking midfielders in the Premier League, and a catalyst for Manchester United’s success this year. His ability to seamlessly create something from nothing has left fans and analysts at a loss for words. However, have United become over reliant on the 24 year-old Frenchman?
It’s no surprise that injuries have plagued Mourinho’s men this year. In April, striker and self-proclaimed demigod Zlatan Ibrahimović sustained a severe knee injury during United’s 2-1 victory against Anderlecht in Europa League play. We would not see him back in action for another seven months. Centre-backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly have traded places on the injury board, both suffering significant bruises that have sidelined them for extensive periods of time. While Rojo has returned to the pitch, Mourinho confirmed that United fans won’t see the likes of Eric Bailly until at least March.
During an easy 3-0 Champions League win against Basel in September, Pogba suffered a hamstring injury. The Frenchman’s first real sprain since joining the Red Devils in summer 2016 could not have arrived at a more inopportune time. United were in control of the Premier League, and it appeared Mourinho’s second season syndrome would continue at a fifth club.
During his two-month hiatus from the pitch, United dropped 8 points to challenge City for league champions. Moreover, we witnessed the downward spiral of Henrikh Mhkitaryan and the lackluster debut of Scott McTominay. To be completely honest, United were utterly useless in the midfield. Pogba’s November return sparked a major shift in momentum for the Red Devils. United’s big 4-1 win against Newcastle demonstrated an improved form in fluidity, action and efficiency.
Even with Pogba, United struggle to capitalize on set pieces and open shots (just look at our uninspiring festive fixture results), but the overreliance on the one-time world’s most expensive player shows that United are shockingly unprepared to handle another long-term Pogba absence.
When Pogba suffered a three-match ban for a straight red against Arsenal at the beginning of December, pundits were quick to hand United’s next opponents, Manchester City, the early victory. The Citizens have had a remarkably historic Premier League season, and without Pogba many wondered if United had the depth to handle a dynamic City offense. The Boss elected to start Ander Herrera in Pogba’s absence, and he was immediately exposed for his lack of creativity and inefficient passing. The Spaniard, when in form, is a force to be reckoned with (i.e. United’s near-perfect 2-0 win against Chelsea in April). However, Herrera is just not as intimidating as Pogba, and does not possess the depth to cover the field like his fellow mid.
The January transfer period could see a major shake-up to United’s roster. With rumors swirling of a Marouane Fellaini and Henrikh Mkhitaryan exit, Mourinho has got to provide help for the former Juventus all-star. Whether it’s this year or next, United cannot prove to be a serious title contender if they are just one Pogba injury away from a sinking season. The Red Devils did have that promising understudy in Andreas Pereira, then the Brazilian international set off to Valencia on a season-long loan. According to Pereira, he has no interest in being recalled next month, citing a mid-season return to England would disrupt his progress at the Spanish club. Given United’s misfortunes in the midfield, Pereira may have missed an opportunity to impress his manager.
Finding a player who matches Pogba’s artistry and vigor is easier said than done. Furthermore, said player would have to be comfortable assuming a similar role as back-up keeper Sergio Romero: essential, but not expected to be a starter. Truth is, United probably don’t need a player identical to Pogba, but they do need one that can withstand the demands of a Premier League attacking midfielder. Any signing United make next month should have a more clinical finish inside the box, something United’s offense have repeatedly lacked this year.
Contrary to Sir Alex’s tenure at the Theatre of Dreams, Mourinho is a more “in the moment” character; making plans for current season success without giving much thought of years to come. Perhaps this is due to his short-term contract with the club. Nevertheless, there have been too many inconsistent players in the midfield. For Mourinho to even match the caliber of talent that he suggests has given Manchester City the edge in this year’s title race, he has got to make some long-lasting and electrifying signings.
Paul Pogba is a sensational midfielder. But he can’t do it all, and Manchester United desperately need someone who can relieve the Frenchman of his duties not only during inconsequential matches, but also should he sustain another major injury. For the Red Devils to thrive in the Champions League and secure a top-four finish in domestic play, they have got to leave January much better than how they are entering it.