Last season Manchester United’s best run of form came when Paul Pogba was given a free role and allowed to get forward. Their worst run of form came when Ander Herrera got injured and whatever semblance of a midfield United had disappeared.
After finishing the season with their worst defensive record in the Premier League era, changes were vital. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got right to it, spending big money on Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
But United’s problems last season weren’t just from poor defenders. Their problems started higher up the field, with a midfield that provided almost no protection for the back line. No matter how much quality, or lack thereof, was in their opponent’s side, too often United let teams run straight at the heart of their defense. That’s going to cause problems no matter who you have back there.
Solskjaer addressed that problem this summer as well. Right from the start of preseason it was clear what his intentions were for this season. The 4-3-3 would be scrapped. The immobile Nemanja Matić was dropped. In came a midfield two with the young Scott McTominay, and next to him would be Paul Pogba, playing as a deep lying playmaker.
Through four games the tactic appears to be working. United have the lowest expected goals against (xGA) in the league. Pogba’s positioning in the midfield two has helped United stop counter attacks before they happen.
Alas, when one door closes, another one opens. When you use Pogba to solve your defensive problems, it’s going to create problems in your attack.
The underlying numbers suggest that United’s attack has been OK so far. Aside from the two penalty misses (if they hit those we’re having far different conversations), they’re fourth in expected goals. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are converting their chances at a decent rate. The fact that they’ve only scored three goals in their last three games shows us that they’re not generating enough chances, and certainly not enough good chances.
It’s an oversimplification to say this is entirely down to a lack of a number 10. You can have your creative force come from a deeper position, but that means Pogba needs help. Right now United are asking Pogba to do everything, which he remarkably is. Despite his deeper role, Pogba leads the team (those who have played at least 50% of available minutes) with 0.37 xA per 90.
United’s forward line this season has been painfully stagnant. Too often players are standing around waiting for something to happen. In fairness to Solskjaer, this was also a problem under José Mourinho and Louis van Gaal.
The forward line doesn’t seem to believe in making off the ball runs to create space for other players. That’s something Juan Mata does really well, and less than 10 minutes into his first start, that very skill helped Daniel James give United the lead.
As Daniel James gets the ball on the left, pay attention to Mata making an overlapping run. That run forced Southampton right back Cedric Soares to follow Mata instead of closing down James. That extra yard of space was all James needed to make them pay.
Mata’s vision both on and off the ball is what United have been missing, but his lack of pace and stamina make him unreliable to be a consistent option. Jesse Lingard, in fairness, is also very good off the ball, but what’s the point of getting into dangerous positions when this is your touch?
Movement is the key to an attack. Stagnant players are very easy to defend. Look at this chance against Crystal Palace.
Rashford gets the ball out wide and has nothing to do with it. United have players in the box, but none of them are moving. It’s not until Luke Shaw, the left-back, makes a run that things start happening. Shaw’s run forces Palace’s defenders to start adjusting and Daniel James ends up open with a good chance.
The fact that it’s the left-back that starts that move is a problem. That’s supposed to be your number 10. You need someone that can “try stuff.” Take on a defender, play that killer pass, have the touch to play quick 1-2s.
Pogba is United’s best number 10. He can play the quick 1-2s.
He can play the killer through ball to your striker.
He can make a long pass to get you in deep.
More importantly, when everyone else is stagnant, he can make things happen.
Where United run into problems is that the things that make Pogba their best no. 10, are the same things that necessitate him playing a deeper role. Pogba’s brain works so fast. When you launch a counter-attack the first pass is vital. We know how good Pogba is at that.
Not only does the initial pass have to be good, it has to be quick. If you don’t punish a mistake right away, the opposition will be able to recover.
Against a team that wants to sit deep, you may only get a one second opportunity to break them open. Look at Pogba’s involvement in Daniel James’ equalizer against Crystal Palace.
Once again United’s attackers are painfully stagnant leaving Pogba with few options. Pogba then has to make a pass that has a low probability of success. It gets intercepted.
Now, there are a lot of fans and media members who have a perception that Pogba is a lazy turnover machine. If that’s what you think you should probably look away now to make sure no factual evidence gets in the way of your narrative.
Following the turnover, Pogba immediately tracks back to win the ball back. With Palace looking to break after the interception, they open themselves up slightly. That slight opening is all Pogba needs, as soon as he wins the ball back he looks up and plays a great ball to Martial. Two seconds later the ball is in the back of the net.
Against Southampton, Pogba’s ability on the ball allowed him to get through the midfield and run at the defense. Against a team that wants to stay compact, that’s the kind of directness that will open them up.
United don’t have any other midfielders that can do this. A McTominay and Matić pairing is too immobile defensively, and offensively teams would just back off and force United into a much slower buildup. As much as United need him up the field they probably need him deeper even more. Either way they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.
If not Pogba, who can be the number 10? Angel Gomes’ name has been mentioned by plenty of fans, but the player ready to do it right now is probably the one currently wearing the number 10 shirt.
Marcus Rashford’s game is probably the most suited on United to take over that spot. Rashford isn’t a number 9, but he’s not quite a winger either. Rashford wouldn’t be the quintessential number 10 we have in 2019. His game is more suited to be more of a “second striker” similar to where Wayne Rooney played when he first came up.
Rashford has the ability to play wide on either side, but not for a whole game. You also want him to be central and run behind defenses. The question is, can Rashford handle the defensive duties that the position now requires? The early return on that question is: no.
With United chasing a goal against Palace, Solskjaer brought on Mason Greenwood and moved Rashford into a more central position, essentially making him the number 10. Take a look at Rashford on the winning goal.
After Paul Pogba’s turnover, Palace go on the break. Rashford does well to track back, sort of. He sprints back to get into the play, but never makes an attempt to stop Van Aanholt. When the ball gets played to Zaha, Rashford leaves his man, Van Aanholt, and heads towards Zaha, where again he never makes an attempt to get the ball back.
Rashford needs to recognize that Zaha is going up against Wan-Bissaka — the best one on one defender in the league — and stay with his man. Wan-Bissaka wins that battle and gets a touch on the ball, but it’s smashed in by the man Rashford left wide open.
The defensive duties of the position can be learned. If United commit to playing Rashford as a 10, I’d expect him to get better there. It won’t happen overnight, and there will be other gaffes, but United need to decide if those gaffes are worth the extra offense.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. Heading into the season, the biggest questions United had were about their midfield and creativity. They have two holes that are both perfectly filled by Pogba. They just unfortunately have only one Paul Pogba.