Two games is an incredibly small sample to base any convincing evaluations on, but there has been a curious common denominator in Manchester United’s last two Premier League fixtures, both defeats that saw Jose Mourinho’s side fail to escape second gear when going forward.
There’s no disgrace in conceding a clean sheet to Tottenham, who boast the most consistent defence in the Premier League over the last three seasons, but failing to create more than a handful of half-decent chances against a relegation-threatened Newcastle side has inevitably raised concerns.
The fact both of these defeats came in the wake of Alexis Sanchez’s move to Old Trafford, and the fact both games saw Paul Pogba hauled off by Mourinho midway through the second half, is no fleeting coincidence.
Manchester United boast some phenomenal individual talents in their attacking and midfield ranks – Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Sanchez, Pogba and Nemanja Matic are all amongst the best in the world at what they do – but piecing them together as a concise effective force is proving a bigger problem than those five stand-alone reputations would initially suggest.
The ultimate issue revolves around United’s most recent addition, Sanchez, and United’s club-record signing, Pogba, who are both yet to produce anything close to their best form while being in the same starting XI.
But the explanation is perhaps more obvious than we might think; it’s widely accepted that Pogba performs best when on the left of a midfield three, when he’s allowed more freedom and can step into the inside forward pocket. Sanchez, though, produced his most devastating form for Arsenal when cutting in from the left flank – like Pogba, stepping into the inside forward pocket.
Particularly against Newcastle, there were moments when Pogba still found himself ambling around the left channel, and in turn, Sanchez ended up picking up the ball in central and even right areas. But in many senses, that renders the attack somewhat dysfunctional, which explains why United struggled for flow and why their best chance of the match – a ball played through to Martial – came from the right-hand side.
More crucially, it explains why Pogba – who Transfermarkt value at £81million – has spent the last two games partnering Nemanja Matic in defensive midfield, tellingly deployed on the right rather than the left to discourage marauding runs into Sanchez’s space, rather than being given the licence to roam. Jesse Lingard’s form has been a factor as well and the youngster’s industriousness in front of United’s two midfielders has made him an important part of the equation too.
“For me Paul is a midfield player. He’s not a left-back, he’s not a striker so when people say what’s his best position for Paul to play — Paul is a midfield player.
It depends on the tactical system the team plays. You can play with two, with one, play with three. But he will always be a midfield player. It doesn’t matter the tactical system the team plays, Paul is a midfield player.”
The problem, though, is quite simply Mourinho’s assessment of Pogba as simply a midfielder, implying he can be tailored to a variety of roles. The France international is a fantastic player, but his qualities are a little more specific than what we’ve come to expect from his typical mould. In terms of physicality, Mourinho has worked with Michael Essien before, and in terms of attacking prowess, the Portuguese played a huge hand in making Frank Lampard a world-class midfielder.
Both of those could be used in varying capacities – Lampard could sit deep, hold shape and link play if needed, and Essien could play as a box-to-box or the holding midfielder – whereas Pogba can’t control his offensive instincts in quite the same way. The right-sided holding role was an attempt to put a leash on him, but the below heatmap against Newcastle courtesy of Whoscored suggests the midfielder just can’t control himself. He’s as desperate to get forward at every opportunity as he is reluctant to sit back and let the game evolve without him. For more disciplined and defensive roles, he just doesn’t have the mindset.
It has been said countless times before that great footballers, even when they’re too similar or too sparse in styles, always find a way to play together. That’s not the case in every instance, but it’s clearly too soon to suggest Sanchez and Pogba are amongst the exceptions to the rule. In truth though, it often comes down to the manager’s ability to find a system that gets the best out of the players in question, and Mourinho is still searching for a way to truly integrate Sanchez into the side.
And yet, the solution is arguably right under Mourinho’s nose. Rather than trying to tap into a versatility Pogba clearly doesn’t have, he should be concentrating on the nomadic qualities Sanchez does have. This is a forward who can play on the right, on the left, behind the striker or as the central striker, with incredibly little difference in terms of performance. Why sacrifice everything Pogba is so good at for a restrictive role that doesn’t suit his natural game, when Sanchez can so easily drift around the attack?
In any case, getting the best out of both when in the same starting XI remains a mystery Mourinho must solve.