Manchester United look like winning trophies with Pogba in the team, but they need to figure out how to play without him too.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then at some point over the last month and six days Paul Pogba became one of the most beloved human beings in the world.
Without him, Manchester United’s alleged 659 million followers have watched their team lose all their early momentum. They’ve shuddered through losses to Chelsea and Huddersfield Town, and sighed through a cowardly draw with Liverpool. They’ve winced as Manchester City stretched away at the top of the Premier League. They’ve fretted as Romelu Lukaku stopped scoring and Henrikh Mkhitaryan stopped assisting. And they’ve watched Jose Mourinho blow kisses at Paris Saint-Germain and spit tacks at everybody else. In the strange, time-compressed world of the Premier League, where whatever has just happened is the only thing that matters, it was pretty much a crisis.
Of course, if it was a crisis — and if it is now over, now that Pogba is back — then United have come out of it second in the league, top of their Champions League group, and still in every competition going. Less of an apocalypse, more of a blip. But beyond the results, and perhaps even more importantly, it didn’t look good. United didn’t look good.
In the absence of Pogba, and following that hideous nil-nil at Anfield, the side visibly congealed. The goals dried up, and so did the chances. With Pogba: six games, 19 goals. Without: 11 games, 21 goals, of which 12 came against Championship side Burton Albion and aspirational Championship sides Everton and Crystal Palace. And just to bring it all into sharp and unflattering relief, City have been racking up goals and wins in extremely eye-pleasing fashion.
So Pogba has returned, and so did the fun in a 4-1 win over the weekend. Of course it was just one game, and of course it was against a decent Newcastle rather than a brilliant anybody, but his impact was almost cartoonishly obvious. With him in midfield, United had the wit to unlock a packed, well-organised defence, and then the verve to slice apart a stretched one. Without him, they have laboured against the former, and so rarely earned a shot at the latter.
Which poses all sorts of interesting questions for Jose Mourinho and the rest of his squad. First, there’s the thought that United shouldn’t be this Pogba-dependent. Asked after the Newcastle game if Pogba was “irreplaceable,” Mourinho agreed, and added: “He affects our football. We all know, myself and the fellow players, that certain players influence the levels of the team. With him we have much more creation. I am so happy.” He probably didn’t mean to imply “Without him, we’re dull, and neither I nor my players have any solution to that.” But, well, he kind of did.
Every other team in the Premier League’s top six has some players that are more important than others. Their loss would be keenly felt. But it’s hard to imagine that their absence would have quite such a marked impact on the team’s style. Common sense insists that a manager as experienced and talented as Mourinho it should be possible to get something both effective and entertaining out of Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. If not, then United have wasted an awful lot of money.
Which brings us to the other, more immediate question: how to manage his return. Pogba came off after about an hour against Newcastle, as Mourinho didn’t want to “go over the limits.” On Wednesday night, United travel to Basel in the Champions League. In terms of the group, United lead with 12 points from 12 and so probably don’t need anything more than a safe, stodgy draw. A perfect opportunity, then, to give Pogba and his just-healed hamstring the evening off.
But in terms of the general shape of the season, a good, entertaining, convincing win would be most welcome. United began the season with momentum, positivity, and just a bit of a swagger, and they lost it. November’s remaining games — Basel away, Brighton at home, Watford away — represent an opportunity to get some of that swagger back, before December brings Arsenal away and then Manchester City at home. United will need Pogba fit for those big games. But they need to be firing in the others first.
Ultimately, until United work out how to play like they have Pogba even when they don’t, then they absolutely cannot afford to be without him. And that earns him a rather double-edged status, as perhaps the most important player in the Premier League. Nobody else makes bridging the gap between “a bit rubbish?” and “possibly excellent?” look like a one-man job. Nobody else has to.
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