“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”
Rant doesn’t often get biblical, but in a summer of tough decisions for Manchester United, it is true that success sometimes necessitates sacrifice. Trimming the fat can be the price of moving forward, making tough calls for the betterment and progression of a club. United might need to address the elephant in the room – Wayne Rooney is the hand that might need to be severed for the body to survive.
On a managerial level it has happened often. Mauricio Pochettino once replaced Nigel Adkins at Southampton, who was doing well but his ceiling was not as high as the Argentine’s. Watford did the same the summer, with Walter Mazzarri replacing Quique Sanchez Flores.
The arrival of Paul Pogba indicates a change of levels at England’s greatest club. He becomes the player around whom the Red Devils will build for the foreseeable future, both on and off the field. Pogba is one of the coolest, most marketable and watchable athletes on the planet, with a rising global profile that will explode now that he has returned to Manchester as the prodigal son. It’s a dream for commercial guru Ed Woodward, who could sell ice to an Eskimo but now has a world star to market.
The Frenchman’s acquisition and the subsequent media storm that it created has been compelling viewing. Together Adidas and club have taken full advantage of the charade, turning #Pogback into a worldwide phenomenon. The focus now, as Pogba settles in with his new teammates this week, shifts back to where it belongs: on the pitch, with the 23-year-old likely to make his second United début on Friday.
The wider question is where Pogba is best utilised by the man who has spent more than a year trying to recruit him – José Mourinho. The Portuguese wanted the player at Chelsea, but couldn’t make that a reality until he came to Old Trafford this summer.
Mourinho’s pet system is a 4-2-3-1 – the one used in preseason and deployed in the first two games proper of the new season at Wembley and Dean Court. And while Mourinho often used a 4-3-3 formation during his first stint with Chelsea it remains to be seen whether the new United manager will alter his shape for Pogba.
In truth, the question about formations centres on the role that England and club captain Wayne Rooney will play this season. On the face of it, Rooney faces stiff competition in any position.
In attacking midfield areas, where Rooney has been deployed thus far under Mourinho, the Englishman should face a genuine fight for his position. While Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata are naturals in the role, Ander Herrera could offer Mourinho a similar impact to the one Oscar made at Chelsea. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to say that Rooney, the club captain earning £300,000-per-week, might soon reach the point where the “special privileges” that he enjoys are no longer enough.
Recent victories over Leicester City and Bournemouth demonstrated that Ibrahimović and Rooney might not play together for long. Rooney’s touch and passing betrayed him on more than one occasion, and it cost United good attacking chances in the process.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Tactically Rooney’s inclusion causes problems as his tendency to drop deep means that he frequently is out of position. This disrupts the team shape. It is also noticeable how often Rooney and Ibrahimović occupy the same zone.[/blockquote]
More than Rooney’s touch, the main issue with the Englishman occupying a role at 10 is the lack of the drive he offers through the middle. The Scouser no longer possesses the speed to blow past opponents, and the explosion that was once a hallmark of Rooney’s best days now betrays him.
Tactically Rooney’s inclusion also causes problems, as his tendency to drop deep means that he frequently is out of position. This disrupts the shape of the team and while his hollywood passes are easy on the eyes, if they are sideways instead of diagonal or vertical, they rarely add a genuine tactical advantage. It is also noticeable how often Rooney and Ibrahimović occupy the same zone.
That is why United’s recruitment of the most promising box-to-box midfielder in Europe makes Rooney’s decline more glaring than ever. Pogba’s role at Juventus came on the left side of a three-man midfield, occupying a role that allowed him the freedom Arturo Vidal was given before his departure to Bayern Munich. Inheriting that freedom resulted in Pogba’s finest campaign, ending with the most assists in Serie A and a double-figure goal tally.
Pogba created more chances than Juan Mata last season, and will bring some of Europe’s best long-range shooting, not to mention dribbling, to a team in dire need of midfield drive. Behind Pogba, Morgan Schneiderlin will allow his compatriot to thrive, doing the dirty work that allows the new signing to roam free.
There are obvious comparisons to Yaya Touré, and when Manchester City made the move last year Pogba reportedly turned them down. But it’s easy to see why the Citizens thought he could replace the Ivorian, with their similar styles, although Pogba has the ability to be a superior creator and is a better dribbler. For now, Touré may be the superior all around scorer, although his City career is seemingly coming to an end.
Mourinho has hinted that Pogba could play as part of a midfield axis, but it remains to be seen until the Frenchman runs out at Old Trafford on Friday where he will play. It is jarringly obvious that United must build around the world-record signing.
Paul Pogba: marketing machine
Deploying Pogba in a 4-3-3 would allow Luke Shaw to combine with the Frenchman in the same way that Patrice Evra has done so effectively at Juve. In fact the former Red enjoyed a late-career renaissance alongside United’s new man in Turin. That aforementioned free role would allow Pogba to combine his abilities as a box-to-box player, playmaker, and goalscorer into one, depending on the game situation.
The European Championships taught the footballing world that Pogba is wasted when deployed too deep – it is not a mistake that Mourinho should replicate. United has the depth of squad to negate that scenario, with players such as Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick and Herrera meaning that it would be more than negligent to consider using Pogba deep.
Then there is the question of profile, with stories circulating that United plans to build its marketing around Pogba and Ibrahimović. Rooney was the former spearhead, but his global reach does not extend beyond that of his new teammates.
Sooner than later Mourinho may accept that it is also the case on the field.