After all the hype at the start of the season, it is fair to say that Manchester United have disappointed so far. Six points adrift of the top four with only 11 games gone, there will have to be a spectacular turnaround over the Christmas period if United are to finish in the Champions League spots come May.
The title challenge that was expected now seems very unlikely, even though, on paper, United have players that rival any of their domestic opponents. The question is, are United getting the best out of their players, including world record transfer Paul Pogba?
Though it is fair to say that Pogba hasn’t set the world alight this campaign, a lot of the criticism of him has been harsh. There can be no doubt that the record transfer fee has clouded people’s judgement, with many expecting Pogba to perform at the level of the world’s very best at the age of 23. The way some of his harshest critics talk about him, you’d get the impression that he has been a hindrance to the team this season.
How can United get the very best out of the man who led Juventus to four consecutive Scudetti? The answer is simple: switch the formation to a 4-3-3.
Pogba’s best football in his career came when he was deployed on the left of a three-man midfield. For Juve, this was in a 3-5-2 formation, something United initially adopted under Louis Van Gaal, and for which they were heavily criticised. It is clear that the current United team would not suit a three man defence, but a switch to 4-3-3 could, potentially, be devastating, though it is doubtful that José Mourinho will drop his favoured formation.
Of course, there are players who will suffer if this change in formation is ever made. Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, and the criminally underused Henrikh Mkhitaryan are all best utilised when deployed as a number ten, behind the striker. In a 4-3-3 there is no room for this type of player. Yet Rooney can always be used in other roles, and Mata and Mkhitaryan can be used on the right of the front three. In Mkhitaryan’s case, he also has the versatility to be deployed as part of the three man midfield, albeit further up the pitch as a playmaker.
The players who will benefit in this system exceed the players who will suffer. Zlatan Ibrahimović has spent the last few years at Paris Saint-Germain as the focal point of a 4-3-3; Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay are wide forwards, not wingers, and are tailor made for an attacking 4-3-3 formation. The same can be said of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. Ander Herrera, also, would be best used as part of a midfield three.
Yet the man who will benefit most is surely Pogba. If United use Michael Carrick to sit deep and dictate the play, like Andrea Pirlo did at Juventus, and play Herrera on the right-hand side of the three, it would allow Pogba the freedom to bomb forward with the ball and display his creative capabilities.
This is something United are crying out for, and frustratingly for United fans, is something that they have at their disposal. This is a squad that has the potential to play quick, end-to-end attacking football. The problem is that at the moment these players are being stifled, and forced to fit into the manager’s system.
Pogba has not been allowed to get forward as much as he would like, being partnered with Maruoane Fellaini, a midfield partnership that simply doesn’t work. Pogba has had more success when paired up with Herrera, who has performed well in the role of ball winner. Yet the truth is, the play has not been quick enough, with the wingers being used all too often as extra full-backs. This has also left Ibrahimović isolated up front, starved of service.
Looking at his performances for France in this year’s European Championship, Pogba’s form dipped when the switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 was made. He was asked to sit deep and dictate the play, something that is not his natural game.
Steven Gerrard, to the frustration of Liverpool fans, was often shunted out to the right or behind the striker under Rafa Benitez. Yet this worked in favour of the team as a whole. The major weakness in Gerrard’s game was his positional sense—he did not have the discipline of a Roy Keane or a Patrick Vieira—and therefore was not a box-to-box midfielder of that ilk.
The same is true for Pogba. Asking him to control midfield, and the game as a whole, is not his forte and not good for the team. Of course, with Pogba’s undoubted talent and strength, United will get away with it against most teams, but not against top class opposition. United will be left exposed and over-run in midfield, as they were in the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea.
Pogba’s natural instinct is to get forward and showcase his skills. In his current position, this will be a hindrance. Some will question why a player of Pogba’s reputation and ability cannot adapt, but if helping him will also help many other players, it will get the most out of the team. If United are to be successful this season, they will have to start getting the best out of their individuals; in particular, the world’s most expensive player.