Three wins in six days. That’s all it took.
Coming off a draw to Liverpool, Manchester United rattled off three straight victories away from Old Trafford over Partizan, Norwich, and Chelsea. Immediately, fans online were making “Paul Pogba who?” comments and the like. Samuel Luckhurst, the chief Manchester United writer for the Manchester Evening News — and vehemently anti Paul Pogba — even wrote an article suggesting that United weren’t missing their talisman.
Paul Pogba is United's most talented player but without a league goal from open play since February, one good game to his name all season and still injured. Win, lose or draw, he has not been massively missed #mufc https://t.co/lWgBtxQgq2— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) October 31, 2019
The suggestion is laughable, especially when you look deeper into the wins, which we did this past weekend. Partizan are currently 4th in the Serbian SuperLiga. Norwich are 19th in the Premier League and boast the league’s worst defense in terms of expected goals against (and by quite a big margin). The Chelsea side United beat on Wednesday was most certainly not first choice.
Prior to the match against Bournemouth, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer down played the team’s recent winning run, saying that while the performances earlier in the season weren’t as bad as the results, the recent performances weren’t as dominant either.
Solskjaer’s right. You can’t get carried away from those three results (as our lovely comment section and the fans on Twitter began to do). Football is a game decided by thin margins, and United have been right on them.
Through 11 games this year United are still top of the table in terms of xGA. They’re still third in expected points. But the reality is United are 10th in the table. Why? Because they don’t create enough chances and thus don’t score enough goals. When you don’t score goals, the margin for error becomes extremely thin.
The thing about having a really good defense is that sometimes mistakes happen. Sometimes your opponents just hit a really well placed shot (Matty Longstaff). If you aren’t creating enough on the attack, any mistake you make on defense is magnified.
Which brings us to Saturday and Bournemouth going up 1-0.
There’s a whole lot going on here, and a whole lot that goes wrong. Check out the beginning. Harry Maguire is marking Callum Wilson, but ends up bumping into Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
That results in Wan-Bissaka having to play as a center back, a position he’s not very comfortable with.
He’s not used to closing down space on a striker. Then when Josh King does get the ball, Wan-Bissaka has to play him one on one, without having the aid of the touchline as a second defender.
Then there’s Victor Lindelöf. Who knows what he’s doing. He starts out in no man’s land. He then starts to run towards the man at the top of the box, instead of trying to trap King and preventing him from turning on Wan-Bissaka, resulting in him being in no man’s land again. King turns Wan-Bissaka, Bournemouth score.
The start of the play was bad luck (and a good design by Bournemouth). Along with the bad luck, there were a bunch of mistakes made. So what, it happens. Scott McTominay made a horrific mistake against Norwich that ended up in the back United’s net. No one said a peep.
Who cares if McTominay makes a mistake when United are 3-0 up? The mistakes against Bournemouth stick out that much more because United weren’t generating anything on the other end.
And that my friends brings us back to Paul Pogba.
As Solskjaer said, it’s important not to get carried away with three wins in six days, and as I mentioned before it’s laughable for people to suggest that the team had finally moved on from Paul Pogba.
In the wins against Partizan and Chelsea, United failed to get a shot on target from open play. This season United are averaging 15.67 shots per game (all competitions) when Pogba plays. Without him, that number drops to 8.1. Let’s not forget that that 8.1 is heavily skewed by United’s 21 shot performance against Norwich, the team with the worst defense in the league. Take that match out and United are taking just 6.67 shots/gm without the Frenchman.
In every season since he’s returned to the Red Devils, when Pogba doesn’t play United’s ability to get shots — and thus their ability to score goals — falls drastically.
Turns out, missing your most creative player is actually a bad thing.
Without Pogba, United need to get their creativity from somewhere else. Over the past month, it’s been Andreas Pereira. Well at least that’s what the plan was when Solskjaer moved the Brazilian to the no. 10 role.
Just over a month ago I wrote about how Pereira doesn’t offer United anything. He’s not a winger, he’s not a box to box midfielder, and he’s not an attacking player. The Pereira defenders came out both in the comment section and on Twitter, saying “of course he wasn’t going to play well, his best position is in the center and United need to give him a chance there.”
Pereira lined up in the number 10 role against Liverpool and Norwich and proved that playing centrally was in fact his best position. He also proved that he’s still not good at it.
Against Liverpool, Pereira was fantastic. He pressed Liverpool’s back line and sat right on Fabinho making his day a nightmare. That is what everyone likes about Pereira right? His work rate and his ability off the ball. The problem is, that’s what you talk about when someone isn’t good on the ball, and you need to be good on the ball to be a good number 10.
In United’s offensive outburst against Norwich Pereira was shockingly not involved. In a match where United took 21 shots and had a non-penalty xG of 2.99, Pereira took just two shots and had an xA of 0.17. He made three key passes but his xGBuildup of 0.02 tells us they didn’t lead to any shots. At the end of the day, United took 21 shots despite Pereira being in the creative position, not because of him.
On the season Pereira has an xA of just 1.55, an astonishingly low number considering that he takes United’s corners and set pieces. Then again:
This terrible free kick actually leads to a shot, though not one with a high probability of scoring.
Against Bournemouth, Pereira was even worse. His lack of influence on the match was so startling you’d be forgiven for thinking he didn’t even play. After each game on Manchester United’s official app there’s a graph that displays that displays the game’s biggest influencers. In order to find Pereira, you have to actually scroll all the way to the right of the graph
Pereira’s underlying numbers (0.02 xA, 0.11 xGBuildup) were bad and his actual numbers were worse. According to the Manchester Evening News he completed only 63% of his passes, and only two of his eight forward passes). According to The Athletic and the United official app, he only completed 60% of his passes — worse than everyone but the two goalkeepers.
Those are the stats. But what about the game?
This match was almost the exactly opposite of Norwich. Against the Canaries the first 10-15 minutes were slow and methodical, leading to fears that the match would be a repeat of the Newcastle failure, until United turned it on. This week, the Red Devils came out flying in the first 10 minutes, only to become impotent as the match wore on.
The flying start came from United attacking Bournemouth left-back Diego Rico, via Daniel James. It only took two and a half minutes to get James in behind and create danger. He charged down the wing before picking out a cutting Andreas Pereira at the top of the box. Pereira lost his footing and the chance.
It was so easy that even Fred was playing balls to in behind to James!
James collected the ball and once again found Pereira in the box, where once again the chance amounted to nothing.
There are so many things that Pereira can do here. If you want to shoot, you need to get closer, but most importantly, you MUST hit the target. Shooting that over the bar is just awful from Pereira.
Forget all the creative responsibilities for a second. One of the most important responsibilities of a number 10 is their ability to get into the box and become a goal scoring threat. This is a skill that Juan Mata excels at. Pereira has never shown any ability in this area. It’s no wonder he only has one goal with the club, and that came from 30 yards out.
While Pereira was terrible it’d be unfair to pin United’s lack of creativity completely on him. We also need to look at Scott McTominay.
McTominay came into this game on a high, having just won his fourth Manchester United player of the month award in the past five months. He deserved it too. He bossed the midfield with exceptional performances against Liverpool and Chelsea.
Bossing the midfield has always been a subject of criticism for Pogba and praise for McTominay. People hold it against Pogba that they’ve never seen him do it like Roy Keane did, whereas McTominay does it all the time.
But that’s the thing. Bossing the midfield suits McTominay’s game. Opposition midfielders won’t run straight through a midfield with McTominay. He’ll get physical with you, he’ll go in for that challenge, and he’ll then get up and go in for that next challenge.
McTominay does that really well, and it’s needed against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester, or Manchester City. Against Bournemouth though? Not so much. That’s when you need skills on the ball, which McTominay just doesn’t have yet. He’s 22, they may come, but at the moment he doesn’t have them.
McTominay is at his best when he gets the ball and has a quick simple outlet. Just like how he started United’s goal against Liverpool.
He gets the ball, settles it, and gets the outlet. That works against Liverpool, but against a team like Bournemouth that’s going to sit back a bit more, everything has to be that much quicker. That’s where McTominay struggles.
That’s admittedly a difficult ball but it’s the kind of turn a central midfielder has to be able to consistently make. You have to be able to play with speed. Just look at how long it takes McTominay to pick out Martial on a pass that everyone knew was coming.
Everything about this just needs to be quicker. The pass, the weight of the pass, everything.
This summed up United’s day. Nothing was fast enough. Their legs, their brains, or their passes.
With United’s lack of urgency it’s no surprise that when all was said and done this is what their shot chart looked like.
Looks a lot like the shot chart United usually give up. A lot of shots but a very low probability of scoring on them.
While I like to focus these pieces on what happened on the field, it needs to be stated that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was far from perfect in this match. After the game he stated that maybe some of his players were tired after playing in the League Cup midweek, but that’s hogwash.
If United were in the Champions League these players would be playing the same midweek schedule as they played last week. He played the team that he needed to win against Chelsea and he was right; everyone who played against Norwich deserved to start this game.
But Solskjaer waited far too long to make any changes. When he finally recognized Pereira needed to come off, bringing on Lingard in his place was painfully like for like, to the point that you couldn’t expect Lingard to do any better (and he didn’t).
I don’t know what the other option is. Maybe bring on Mason Greenwood to play the number 10 role (and play more of a 4-4-2)? It doesn’t matter — at that point you need to try something. Had United been knocking on the door I can see you waiting to make a change, but they weren’t. Solskjaer needs to learn to make changes sooner but waiting too long to make a change is the same trait that drives Spurs fans nuts about Mauricio Pochettino.
United still have a long way to go this season. They need to get more consistent. They need to play with more urgency. Getting Paul Pogba back won’t solve all their problems, but the fact that people even thought they were proving to be better off without him remains laughable.