Wednesday evening brought news reports from Italy which suggested that Paul Pogba may be as little as 48 hours from joining Manchester United, promising a conclusion to a truly epic transfer saga.
In the past three summers Executive Vice President Ed Woodward and his two previous managers have struggled to turn financial might into world class signings, but this summer has always felt different. Under Jose Mourinho, United have suddenly become more focused and decisive, whilst Woodward appears to have learned some valuable lessons from past mistakes. If Pogba is finally signed he will become the fourth outstanding signing of the summer, following Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly, revitalising a distinctly average squad. Given United’s farcical pre-season so far, the results may not be immediate, but ultimately better players mean a stronger club.
If he joins, Pogba will add another dimension to United’s midfield, which has been one-paced and predictable since Paul Scholes finally hung up his boots for the second time. It lacks dynamism and a consistent goal threat and the burden of winning matches has long since fallen almost exclusively on those further forward. Pogba can change that. In 41 starts in Serie A and European competition in the past year the Frenchman scored 9 times and provided 14 assists and was made man of the match on 9 occasions by statistical modelling website whoscored.com. To put that in context, United’s compliment of midfielders, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera scored 7 goals in the Premier League and Europe between them and provided 1 assist. United have long since become one dimensional and relatively easy to play against. If an opponent can nullify Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford then there have been few other consistent weapons in the Red’s armoury. Pogba should change that.
The big question, if he signs, will be where Jose Mourinho decides to play him. In pre-season so far his team have started in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Pogba has consistently been more effective throughout his career in a midfield three. If his prospective manager sticks with the formation he has trialled so far it will be interesting to see if the Frenchman slots in in midfield or at number 10. The Portuguese likes his 10s to be dynamic and hardworking and Pogba certainly fits the bill. However, to play him there could negate some of his drive and explosiveness from the centre of the park. If he is selected behind a striker, that would almost certainly be the end of Wayne Rooney as a first choice footballer at Manchester United, Mourinho having already excluded the possibility of the England captain starting in midfield. What is certain though, is that Pogba would be a fantastic signing for United, whatever the cost, and would give them another dimension to their play and a consistent goal threat from midfield. The transfer fee is one for the money men. The rest of us just want to see a better team on the pitch.
However, even if Pogba signs there are still huge deficiencies in the United squad that need addressing. He may have to wait until some of his bloated squad is jettisoned, but Mourinho and United simply cannot stop there if they genuinely have their sights on the Premier League trophy this coming season. The manager has, if reports are to be believed, been planning for this job since December and will have been watching his prospective squad closely. He won’t have needed the friendly thumping by Borussia Dortmund to know that his defensive options are utterly inadequate. Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia were particularly poor. According to Mourinho mouthpiece Duncan Castles, Rojo has already been made available for transfer, but United face familiar problems offloading inadequate players on huge wages to the level of club likely to want them. Jones and Valencia would pose a similar problem.
With Luke Shaw returning at left back and new signing Eric Bailly looking promising at centre back defensive matters may be on the up, but there are still huge question marks at centre back and right back. Matteo Darmian has struggled after a capable start, although Timothy Fosu-Mensah has done well when asked to play on the right. Chris Smalling is set to return in the centre, but will face familiar questions about his concentration and ability on the ball. There will be, as things stand, no dominant leader in the back line. Mourinho has always had that figure before wherever he has been, from John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at Chelsea and Sergio Ramos and Pepe at Real Madrid, to Carvalho at Porto and Walter Samuel at Inter Milan. A strong defence has been the base on which all Mourinho’s teams are built. Without a more experienced and dominant signing in that position it is hard to see a successful season for United in 16/17.
Recent articles by Castles suggest that Mourinho is petitioning his EVP for such a player, but that Woodward is unconvinced by the need for and cost of such a signing. After potentially spending approximately £160m+ net you can understand his reticence. His manager’s job, however, must be to persuade him that such a signing will be the difference between success and failure. United are under commercial pressures with the Adidas deal in particular containing a clause which reduces the payments if the club miss the Champions League for a second successive season, whilst three years out of four outside of Europe’s premier competition would be damaging both financially and in terms of persuading top players to join. The coming season will be absolutely pivotal for both the club and its Executive Vice President.
The signing of Paul Pogba would be a sensational statement of intent from United and Ed Woodward, whose claim that his club, ‘could do things in the market other clubs can’t’, has been the source of some ridicule. His stated desire that he wanted to stop the best players moving to Spain would at last begin to become a reality, as Real Madrid have been priced out of a move for the Frenchman. Pogba will bring dynamism, physicality and goal threat to United’s pedestrian midfield, taking the pressure off the forwards to decide every match. But he can only do so much. If those behind him cannot protect the good offensive work of their teammates then it could all be nothing. United need to complete the Pogba deal and kick on with signing another centre back. Should they achieve that then the Premier League title is most certainly within their reach. If not and we could be in for another long, chastening season.