Manchester United’s solid start to the season has met turbulence in the form of three successive defeats, with many beginning to ask several questions of Jose Mourinho and his match-day line-ups. One of the biggest, and maybe most important, of those questions is how do Manchester United get the best out of Paul Pogba? His transfer fee was the highest that any club has ever paid for a player, adding a sense of urgency to find the answer to the question on the minds of United’s fans. Many are leading to believe that question is answered by the removal of one seemingly immovable figure in the starting line-up: Wayne Rooney.
“I don’t understand playing Rooney as a midfielder…Mourinho has to put his players in their best positions, which isn’t happening at the moment,” says Jamie Redknapp, who has never been shy to voice his opinions on Jose Mourinho, as seen above, and the two have traded words back and forth on a few occasions. Redknapp’s quote holds some truth and is actually in compliance, somewhat, with Mourinho’s answer on questions of Rooney’s best position in his first press conference as United boss.
How this relates to Pogba might have more to do with the formation, the players selected or just who you’re asking. A subjective belief which seems to hold some validity based on the Frenchman’s first few performances is that he is clearly not a holding midfield player. In a 4-2-3-1, he is being asked to anchor the midfield alongside Marouane Fellaini. Playing in a double pivot means that Pogba is tasked with duties such as tucking in for advancing full-backs, something which is not key to his skill set. His passing and movement is good, but he needs to be closer to goal to make more of an impact and justify his price tag. He should be running at players with the ball at his feet, creating chances and scoring, which is unlikely to happen with the current set-up. United have a host of talented midfielders who could come in to fill those positions, whilst Rooney’s omission (or changing his position to a number nine) would free up an advanced position for Pogba to thrive.
If Mourinho insists on the 4-2-3-1, then the key change that must be made is an alternative to Rooney as a number 10. Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Paul Pogba have the potential to do so, and the latter’s employment in that position would put him in a similar role to the one he enjoyed at Juventus. In Italy, he had the solidity of a back-three behind him with wing-backs either side, and hard-working midfielders like Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira sharing the work-load in midfield.
A system such as this would allow United to continue playing in a fairly similar manner, except now Pogba has more freedom to roam and utilize his long-range shooting ability, which he displayed briefly against Watford when he smashed a strike from distance against the crossbar. The inclusion of Michael Carrick in midfield would allow them to control the tempo of the game from deeper positions, and would probably end up looking like more of a downward pointing triangle in midfield.
The inclusion of players like Schneiderlin and Herrera would also seem beneficial to United as a collective unit, as they would offer more pace and movement than Carrick. United lost the midfield battle to Manchester City in the derby, and possibly even worse than being outnumbered there, they were out-thought and bypassed with ease. Fellaini is not a holding midfielder nor is Rooney a natural number 10, so the blame cannot entirely fall on their shoulders. What is required is not a major overhaul, but a tweak in midfield to get the balance right. It seems like that balancing act begins with dropping Wayne Rooney.
Overall, there is no real reason for concern about United. The pundits who lambast Mourinho for three-straight losses were the same ones who embellished his title-chances in pre-season when United added star-studded names to their side. Just before the international break, United enjoyed three-straight league wins and were seemingly untouchable. Narrow defeat to rivals Manchester City, a 1-0 Europa League loss to Feyernoord and a late collapse at Watford later, and suddenly the media is questioning Mourinho’s ability. If his record is anything to go by, then don’t write him off so early.