Three records, £200 million, one question: why hasn’t United got the best out of world-class talent
Paul Pogba’s tough start to life at Manchester United is reflective of the struggle the club has faced in turning record acquisitions into real success since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. In fact United has failed to extract the most from its last three record purchases: Pogba, Angel di Maria, and Juan Mata. While the players’ performances, attitude and commitment can sometimes be called into question, it also clear that the United has made precious few plans for what to do with the club’s shiny new toys.
Pogba reached a fresh nadir at Stamford Bridge, with the Frenchman struggling to contain Chelsea’s midfield of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. It wasn’t supposed to be this way; not after United paid around £90 million to recapture the former youth team Red. Pogba’s dynamic, physical and attacking talents were something to build a fresh team around.
Yet, in the 12 games the Frenchman has started on his return to the club his performances have garnered mixed reviews. Anonymous at the Bridge, excellent in victory over Fenerbahçe, quiet at Anfield, there is something not quite clicking with the player.
The Frenchman is not dominating games, nor is he the attacking tour de force witnessed at Juventus last season. Pogba has proven neither a great destroyer nor a great creator. There have been just three goals and no assists, although that is goals-to-games ratio in keeping with his career.
Those thrusting runs from midfield now seem less penetrative. The long-range shooting just a little off-key. There is so much more to give, but no obvious signs that it is coming. Time will tell whether the money was spent wisely, let alone if Pogba can fulfil his substantial potential at Old Trafford, but for the moment United has a player that is considerably less dynamic than the one whom left Italy in the summer.
"United has failed to extract the most from its last three record purchases: Paul Pogba, Angel di Maria, and Juan Mata. Players’ performances can be called into question, but it clear that the United has made few plans for what to do with the club’s shiny new toys."
It’s certainly not all the Frenchman’s fault. José Mourinho has used Pogba at six, eight and 10 this season, seemingly moved the player around the team with each game. At times he holds, at times he is asked to dictate play. Too rarely has Pogba been offered the freedom to drive forward as a classic number eight, knowing that there is adequate protection behind. It is so patently his best role.
In this Pogba is the victim of Mourinho’s muddled thinking; a manager that is yet to settle on his best formation, let alone a preferred starting team. Pogba, the world record purchase, was the man around whom United had planned to build a team. Or so it seemed, and yet too often Mourinho has architected a way of pushing the Frenchman to the periphery.
There are signs of change. Pogba was excellent pushing forward from midfield in United’s 4-1 rout of Fenerbahçe in the Europa League last week. The Frenchman was also given a little more freedom as the Reds beat Manchester City in the League Cup, although he was muted throughout. Mourinho points to Fenerbahçe as evidence of the player’s growing influence and has called for patience.
“First of all, in some of your mouths, he goes from the worst player in the Premier League to a great player in 48 hours,” said Mourinho of Pogba’s performance against the Turks.
“I am not specifically saying it is you. I say media, especially the Einsteins. We know he is a very good player. We know he needs some time to show his potential. I know Italian football very well. I know teams play completely different from the Premier League. Everything is different and he needs time to adapt.”
This same observation cannot be made of Juan Mata, 2014’s record purchase, who enjoyed three years at Chelsea before Mourinho sold him to United. Where the pattern converges with Pogba is in a refusal of any manager to build a team around the Spaniard’s talents. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal largely used Mata on the right, while Mourinho has dropped the player for United’s biggest games this season. It makes little sense given Mata’s output.
This policy is placed in stark relief by Mata’s excellent form when used in what many believe is his natural position at 10. Though he is an old-fashioned playmaker, not the dynamic player to whom Mourinho normally turns, Mata has brought the best out of United’s attacking talent when used in a central, creative role. It is not just the numbers, although Mata has scored or assisted more than anyone bar Wayne Rooney in his time at the club. Mata is also a player that contributes to the flow of a game more than most. He is an entertainer, and a firm favourite with the Old Trafford crowd. In leans times surely that counts for much.
Indeed, United has secured seven victories from Mata’s nine starts this season, with just one defeat at Feyenoord. By contrast, Mourinho’s team has been beaten three times in five without Mata in the starting XI. He capped off a fine performance against City in the League Cup with the winning goal – a crisp strike from a central area.
Yet, Mourinho is reluctant to throw his all behind the Spaniard. Mata has started most of United’s ‘lesser’ games, but was dropped for fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and City in the Premier League recently – matches when Mourinho took on a more defensive mindset and drafted Marouane Fellaini into the team. One point from nine points to a failed policy. It this conservatism that threatens to limit Mata’s ability to fulfil his potential. Just as Moyes and Van Gaal also restricted Mata’s role.
Similarly, the club was unable to extract real value from Di Maria, a player around whom Real Madrid had crafted a European Cup winning side. Instead, Di Maria’s fall was steep – from those heady first few games at Old Trafford, to a place on the bench for much of the spring in his one season at the club. When it mattered most Van Gaal turned to lesser players than Di Maria.
The player’s attitude rightly came under scrutiny during his time at the club. There is a belief that Di Maria, somehow, rarely felt at one with United. How rapidly the early energy of standout autumn displays dissipated into indifference as the season wore on.
Injuries to thigh, hamstring and a variety of muscles exacerbated poor form, although the player missed just four games in total through injury alone. Another three passed the winger by after a bizarre FA Cup dismissal against Arsenal. It precipitated Di Maria’s exclusion from Van Gaal’s side.
Van Gaal’s insistence on changing the team’s shape was far from helpful though. Di Maria’s role within it was in constant flux and in total the player featured in nine different positions across midfield and attack for United in just 32 appearances. He started the campaign as one of three in central midfield, was shifted to a role in a diamond, featured on both wings and as an auxiliary forward. Most oddly of all, Van Gaal tried the player as an outright striker in three matches. The failure to consider a £60 million player as central to the club’s plans certainly contributed to Di Maria’s failure.
In this there is certainly a pattern. Does Mourinho truly know how he is going to use Pogba and will it settle into a pattern? Could Moyes, Van Gaal or the Portuguese truly attest to placing the outrageously talented Mata as the central cog in their plans? Did the club and the Dutchman do everything to get the most out of Di Maria?
The answers do not show United in the best light, certainly not after spending nearly £200 million on the trio. It says something for the pattern of chasing everything that glitters and not a structured, well thought-out transfer policy.
Plus ça change – but it must if United is to return to preeminence.