Most fans would agree that Paul Pogba is Manchester United’s only world class outfield player at the moment and his long layoff due to an ankle injury could not have come at a worse time. With a potential return date of early December coinciding with back-to-back fixtures within four days against Spurs and Manchester City, it’s surely a no-brainer that he should walk straight back into this struggling Manchester United side the minute he becomes available again. Or is it?
Before you send me off for a mental health evaluation, just think about these four questions that Olé Gunnar Solskjaer needs to consider before making that decision.
Who do you drop?
Assuming there are no further injuries, that McTominay is fit, and that the team is playing in the same way on the same form in early December as it is now, which player should be dropped to make way for Pogba? Without a major change in formation and tactics, the most obvious options would be through the middle –Andreas Pereira, Fred or even McTominay himself.
Pereira is arguably the most likely to give way but this would either force Pogba to play as an out-and-out No.10 – a little further forward than his best position – or for there to be a change from the 4-2-3-1 formation that Solskjaer prefers, and which the team is getting used to and starting to make work. A formation change for this young side when just building momentum may not be a wise move and could interrupt the progress that’s being made.
Another reason to think twice before dropping Pereira is that the team will lose his prowess with set pieces and we could be back to Ashley Young taking the free kicks and corners. If that really is our second best option, then frankly it makes Pereira’s inclusion in the side very important indeed.
The other obvious option is for Pogba to replace Fred in the starting line-up. However, this could make the side a bit top-heavy with attacking players. Fred’s work rate and defensive skills far exceed those of Pogba and it would place a massive burden on McTominay to protect the defence single-handed.
Pushing Fred back into the holding midfield role and dropping McTominay is another option, but that presents similar problems to those that would be caused by swapping out Fred. Besides, McTominay has excelled in that role and surely merits a place in the starting XI. Indeed, all three – Pereira, Fred and McTominay – have been playing so well in recent games that despite a crying need for more creativity, none of them really deserves to be dropped. Of course, with Scott’s injury still being assessed as I write this, this might be all be a moot point.
Excess of luxury
You could argue that Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Pogba are all “luxury players”. Martial and Pogba, especially, are flair players who try the unusual and unorthodox; they are heavily technique-based, mercurial and unpredictable. And all three are inconsistent – brilliant one minute and incredibly frustrating the next. The question is, can you afford to have three such capricious players in one team? There can be moments or even entire games of brilliance, but you also know that a lot of possession and in Rashford’s case, chances, will be squandered as well. Again, for a young team like this current United side, maybe this is too much flair at this stage.
One of the key ingredients of the Solskjaer method is the high press and high work rate of his side. This is not, and never will be, one of Pogba’s strengths. Whichever of the current starting XI you replace him for, you will be losing their energy and replacing it with his languid strutting. This dialling down of urgency and tenacity can sometimes transmit itself to the rest of the team.
Another thing that can distract and undermine the rest of the team is the Pogba media circus. He’ll be coming back into the side in December, just as the January transfer window rumour mill starts to heat up. His agent Mino Raiola will, no doubt, be stirring the paella pot and rekindling his courtship with Real Madrid. Do United really need that kind of grass-is-greener, want-away or pay-me-a-fortune-to-stay mentality to radiate from their main man at this stage?
How will it affect the rest of the team – a team that Solskjaer is trying to build from players who are committed to playing for Manchester United? As the team prepares itself for those big games, do we want the dressing room to be all about new contracts, new cars, new haircuts and new inane goal celebrations, or about how to win a game of football?
Look, I am not stupid. I know what a class player Pogba is and how desperately this team needs players of his quality and in particular, some creativity in the middle of the park. The issue for me is about how he is reintroduced and the effects of his early inclusion need to be considered very carefully. Solskjaer may be wise to just put the Frenchman back on the bench for the first couple of Premier League games and limit his starts to within an already rotated side against the likes of AZ Alkmaar or Colchester United. And in the meantime, let’s face it – what an option to have on the bench.