Three records, £200 million, one question: why hasn’t United got the best out of world-class talent

October 27, 2016 Tags: , , , Reads 12 comments
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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.”

Juan Mata

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.

Angel di Maria

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.


NazManUnited - October 27, 2016 Reply

Mourinho is Mourinho he’s easily scared into playing brutes over skill & flair. Mourinho & Old Stoke City are the perfect match😂

Denton Davey - October 27, 2016 Reply

To me, the big issue is that Jo$e has not been able to create a “platform” for Pogba.

One, short-term way towards resolving that issue is to play him with Carrick guarding the central defense (which is also something of a shambles, eh ?). BUT that solution is short-term since MC16 must be close to the end of his days as a first-team selection.

So, maybe a riff on that solution might be to try some alternatives such as Daley Blind or Morgan Schneiderlin playing the “Carrick Role”. These two guys have different qualities but each/both (?) would no doubt benefit from being given a run of games.

But if you move Blind into central midfield then what happens to central defense ? Does Jo$e trust Schneiderlin ?

For sure, BOTH Pogba and Herrera play best when being the box-to-box midfielders and that can only happen when the CarrickRole is filled by someone not name Fellaini.

So, a solution to this problem is complicated – hugely – by Eric Bailly’s unfortunate injury and the incredible unreliability of Smalling/Jones. And, to make matters worse, once Bailly gets a medical clearance to renew his involvement in the first team then it’s AfricanCupOfNations time of the year.

Having taken apart LvG’s “template” of possession as the best form of defense, Jo$e’s attempts to reorganize the style of play seem to me to be wrecked on the extreme vulnerability of his central defenders.

Maybe it’s time for Fosu-Mensah and Tuanzebe to be given the chance to BeLikeRashford and get lots of playing time ?

Fusilli Jerry - October 27, 2016 Reply

The Garry Birtles effect at United extends well beyond the record-breaking purchases. The likes of Darmian, Depay, Schneiderlin, Mhkitaryan, have all exchanged what were, up until that point, thriving careers for club and country, for a well-paid graveyard. This, especially the Armenian’s mishandling combined with the Schweinsteiger PR disaster, and the Kagawa cock-up, means United will soon struggle to convince Greizmann-level talent, or any player from the Bundesliga, to join us rather than our rivals.

Not that we’d give them a chance to settle down, play, and perform, in a stable managerial and tactical situation, in one position – their position – but at least for now we take the likes of Pogba out of the sport altogether rather than see them excel for Barcelona, Bayern, Abu Dhabi or someone.

The problem is deep rooted and systemic, from flawed recruitment (Mata wasn’t the player Moyes needed – given that the Scot wasn’t going to move Rooney aside – and doesn’t now fit into a system that deploys Pogba properly; Di Maria and wife never wanted to be at our club, wanted Paris and simply sulked and got sent off until we kindly made up the difference between Real’s asking and PSG’s offering prices), to shoddy on-boarding practices (the Lowry Hotel is not the right environment for foreign families adjusting to north west England; why on earth doesn’t the club have mansions in Cheshire for players/Mourinhos to stay in temporarily; and why on earth doesn’t the club have better liaison officers capable of settling all new arrivals into suitable permanent properties quickly, without fuss, so they can concentrate on football?).

A structured, well thought-out transfer policy would also rid the club of Fellaini, resulting in the same immediate uplift achieved when the Anderson stool was finally flushed away.

Adam - October 27, 2016 Reply

I’m sorry but questioning the attitude and commitment of Mata and Pogba are you serious? Considering the handling of Mata and how often he’s dropped / subbed his attitude and commitment are bang on. Never complains or moans and always puts a shift in when picked. Same for Pogba, performance are not great but commitment and attitude questioned?
Think your way off the mark.
The guys comment above about being a graveyard for players like Depay, Di Maria, Schneiderlin ect ect that is bang on. All of them in the form of their life and just disappear into the unknown at Utd. If Depay and Henrik actually got a run of games they could be top drawer they just need a decent run.
Utd used to make good players great and now we seem to make great players average.
Should have gone for Klopp or Pochettino 🙁

Pint vulger - October 27, 2016 Reply

I agree the Manchester effect is v important ,its very different in 2016 the wealth of thses blokes has to be taken into account ,even the manager is struggling ,on that Jose is not going to be here for 5 years the way things look at the moment,on the same note niether will Pep.
Mata is a real inigma ,a panic buy in winter,can range from brilliant ,average to shite in the same half and not my type of player or Joses …too small for me,and hes not a Scholes,bad signing for the dosh.
Never thought de maria would settle ,never rated him and still dont vastly over priced another panic buy.Cant remeber th game he came on as sub and it was literally one of the worst 30 mins or so I have ever seen ,inc Bellion et al.
As for the latest overpriced signing,he too has produced flashes of a great player ,and has been the cross bar away twice from winning games ,so unlucky .I dont agree he was anything special v Fernabache ok cracking finish but still in and out,last night average ,shite v Liverpool, and he onows Manchester,so the jury is out .
What I will say to him if you have time to practice some stupid embarrasing dance celebration ,cut it out untill you back it up with some decent performances.
No other buisness wastes money on a scale like this,the games gone mad.

Rich - October 27, 2016 Reply

Cracking article. We’ve got ourselves into a situation where the players are obviously being effected by the tremendous expectations put on them; especially our record signings. Depay is another example of a player buckled under the pressure: every time he touches the ball it’s like he’s trying to work out how to prove himself worthy. I reckon if Memphis was told tomorrow that he’s going to be sold in January, he might actually relax and put in some good appearances.

simon davies - October 28, 2016 Reply

martial or Mkhitaryan? They are critical to ibra and allow pog space to play.

Thariq Amir - October 28, 2016 Reply

Apparently, Di Maria is a bit of a loner at PSG and doesn’t speak a word of French.

Duncan - October 28, 2016 Reply

Interesting, I would have said Pogba needs to learn how to play where he’s told, instead of wanting what appears to be a free role but the di Maria example is a good one. He had one position he was world class in, coming in from the right wing, but he was used all over the place, but then Moyes and van Gaal had a penchant for playing people in worng positions and we’ve had the Rooney problem for 3 or 4 years which messed up our team selection and shape. Di Maria didn’t want to come to United, I’m not sure the coach really wanted him, certainly didn’t act like he did. But then Di Maria played like absolute garbage so you can’t blame him for being dropped really. He could have made a better fist of it, but I think he decided early on he wanted to go.

I reckon Mourinho bought Pogba hoping to make him an all round midfielder, capable of playing in a two. Pogba has other ideas. If we’re not careful we could have a situation with an undroppable Pogba out of sorts in midfield with a coach who doesn’t want to change his system for one player but can’t leave him out. Then we have an undroppable Ibrahimovic up front. This is the galactico problem.

Pogba was terrible in the first half against Chelsea, I turned it off at half time it was so awful. He doesn’t want or have the intensity to play alongside Herrera, at least not at the moment. WHat could be happening is that, like Mourinho says, he is learning, albeit slowly, what it means to play in a two in the Premier League and that over the course of a season he’ll get it right. However I worry if Pogba has already decided he can’t play there and is dawdling around trying to prove it, he’s going to tank our season.

With 4-3-3 we lose Mata, who is our stand-out attacking player at the moment. I would say Mata is a better no.10 than Pogba. I’d almost drop Pogba at this point, you have to go with what’s working and Pogba isn’t working, neither is Ibra. Hopefully Mourinho has learned that a 48 year old Carrick would be better than Fellaini in midfield, and we go with Martial or Rashford up front. I just wonder whether Pogba has to sit one out, take a break, have a chat, because he’s too young to get away with claiming he can’t learn new skills.

bobbynoble - October 28, 2016 Reply

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine
You’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey,
Hey Mickey…..

Another one hit wonder?

dayus - October 28, 2016 Reply

When people were crucifying LVG and were asking for Morinho, I warned they should be careful what they wish for. Wrll,i don’t want to say I told you so.

Mark - October 29, 2016 Reply

Not sure you can ever judge anyone completely in their first season.
Remember Jap Stam…in his first year he was branded the biggest waste of money ever by the papers….next year he was world class.

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