Another week, another Paul Pogba cryptic comment to add to his summer collection. ‘Operation Leave Old Trafford: Part Two’ is in full swing, as the World Cup winner looks more and more likely to move on after two disappointing seasons back in Manchester. With a host of European big boys after his signature, the Frenchman’s next destination is still to be decided. Coupled with meddling from his puppet master Mino Raiola, however, there’s now a sense of inevitability about the whole saga. If the turmoil of last season was not a clear enough warning, the latest and very deliberate comments will be. Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward should be acting on them now.
In the summer, United brought Fred into the club to compliment Pogba. The hope was that his form of the World Cup could finally be realised at club level. There is now a distinct possibility that he could actually be a replacement. It is far too early in the Brazilian’s Old Trafford career to believe he will be a success. If Pogba is to leave in January or next summer, it is likely another central midfielder will be bought. Fred was one of a number of central midfielders linked to the club this summer and it is those same players that are likely to be tipped again. Which one of those is best placed to fill that potential Pogba-shaped void in Mourinho’s midfield?
Go back 12 months and you’d be hard pushed to find anyone outside of Serbia or Rome, who knew who Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was, let alone whether he could replace Paul Pogba. A stellar domestic season at Lazio saw the Serbian score 12 goals and add three assists. These contributions went a long way to almost firing Lazio back into the Champions League, only missing out on head-to-head results with Inter Milan.
Of all the linked players Milinkovic-Savic is the closest comparison to Pogba in terms of his physical set up. Both display tall and imposing physiques, whilst possessing the ability to beat players, pick out a pass, be good in the air and to score goals. A comparison on their 2017/18 domestic season stats will not identify huge differences, with the goals and assists tallies evening themselves out. Even their overall number of passes and success rate are almost identical. Milinkovic-Savic could have the edge in his key passes and chance creation, something United’s attacking play could really benefit from.
To assist or not to assist?
The frustration with the Frenchman is how he over-complicates much of what he brings to 90 minutes of football. More often than not, the end result is him losing possession. The idea of a simple pass to Pogba is probably locked away in his brain somewhere near the notion of having to stay out of the limelight. All of it is to the detriment of the other 10 blokes playing alongside him.
It is easy to point to his 10 assists and draw the conclusion that Pogba is the creative spark. Assist stats are also very misleading though. They could refer to a 50-yard raking pass or a one-yard assist off of his backside. The statistic does not paint any pictures. The better comparison is the number of chances created.
For example, Pogba was only four assists behind the serial assist king Kevin De Bruyne last season. However, the Belgian created almost 3 times as many chances and racked up more than three times as many key passes. When it comes to being creative, they are not on the same planet. Although Milinkovic-Savic did not reach these heights, he did create more and complete almost twice as many key passes as Pogba, albeit in a traditionally slower-paced environment.
Based on these statistics, would he be an upgrade on the Frenchman? The answer on stats alone is probably no, but he could be a more than apt replacement. There is also no doubt that the Serb fits the physical profile that suits Mourinho’s style. This makes the interest in Milinkovic-Savic clear and obvious. After this summer, it will not be difficult for United fans to understand that the stumbling block could be his fee.
If Milinkovic-Savic is a typical Mourinho type midfielder, then Thiago is very much not. At only 5ft 8in, the Spanish international is a more technically gifted footballer than the Lazio man, and probably Pogba too. He also possesses the ability to control the pace of a game, very rarely giving the ball away. They are exact assets that the United midfield have been crying out for since Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick have not been able to do it on a consistent basis.
Thiago’s pass completion is as high as anyone across Europe, let alone compared to Pogba’s, impressive considering the range of passing he also possesses. Anyone who can get in the Spanish midfield must have considerable technical ball skills. Thiago was injured seven times last season, playing almost half the number of minutes that Pogba managed. He still produced as many key passes and created 24 chances to Pogba’s 35, a very impressive return.
Physicality under Mourinho
The problem comes whether Thiago could play under Mourinho’s leadership. Small and technically gifted players do not seem to be his cup of tea. You only need to look at this season alone to note that Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira, season opener starters, have already been relegated from the squad. Both are very much in the same mould as Thiago, with their best assets being with the ball. This is in stark contrast to their replacements, Marouane Fellaini, Nemanja Matic, and Jesse Lingard, all stereotypical Mourinho midfielders and all better without the ball than with it.
Like Pogba and Milinkovic-Savic, fellow Serb Matic and Fellaini are tall, imposing players. They are good in the air but are not known for their ball-playing techniques. Lingard is physically more like Thiago, but makes the side for his undervalued energy, movement and runs into the box. Unless there is a serious change of tactics and vision from Mourinho, the likelihood of seeing another small technician like the Spanish midfielder plying their trade at Old Trafford is very slim.
Replace from within
Of course, there is a huge possibility that the answer to the problem is already under Mourinho’s nostrils. Early season signs suggest that the manager is moving from the idea of deploying Pogba in a midfield two and trying to give him more license nearer the opposition box. Fred played the first few games as the box to box player alongside Pereira. Later Matic, and most recently Fellaini, operated as an extra defensive shield.
The problem comes with Pogba himself as his performances can range from the sublime to the abysmal and back again, sometimes as quickly as in the same match. City away last season springs to mind. The current tactic to free up Pogba is – or at least was – worth persisting with, where his defensive commitments are somewhat lower. It now seems too late for Pogba to recover the damage caused over the past few months.
I noted earlier that the club possibly knew what was around the corner with Pogba and agent C. Fred could actually be a replacement for, rather than an addition to, the Frenchman. Mourinho has numerous central midfield options. Matic, Fellaini, Herrera, Fred and even Pereira are all able to play a little deeper. The latter still a good option further forward.
Mourinho has often opted for the energy of Lingard in that advanced role too. He still has the option to move Alexis Sanchez more centrally if he so desires. However, there is possibly an even better option; Mata could fill the role where he could and should excel in.
Is Juan Mata the answer?
Season after season, Mata – a man of class on and off the pitch – fails to get the plaudits he deserves. All the talk is about Pogba being played out of position, and how Mourinho can get the best out of him. Meanwhile, Mata has suffered the same fate, constantly played wide right to accommodate others, whilst still managing to put in controlled and creative displays for his team, without a hint of complaint.
The two players couldn’t be further apart in how they conduct themselves off the pitch. Analysing their stats on it, Mata could be the simple answer to replacing the Frenchman. Although their Premier League appearance numbers are identical, Mata played almost five hours less football having become Mourinho’s go-to scapegoat during games. Despite all of this, Mata comfortably created more chances than Pogba. He also completed almost double the number of key passes, all whilst achieving a higher pass completion percentage.
The little Spaniard has the vision, technical ability and eye for goal that United could really benefit from if he is given a good run in the side. Romelu Lukaku would find himself in much better goal-scoring positions feeding off of Mata. The energetic runs of Lingard and Sanchez from wide, so often fruitless, will suddenly become a real threat. David Silva, regularly lauded as one of the best creative players to grace the Premier League, plays week in week out at City in his best position in order to fulfill his undoubted class. If Mourinho had offered Mata the same consistency, we may well have been talking about him in the same breath.
Not all about statistics
There is no doubting the ability that Pogba possesses. His stats alone suggest he produces a lot of positives for United. He scores goals, supplies assists and his passing stats are above average. One thing that statistics cannot capture is attitude, something that dilutes all his. The player himself has the tools to be unstoppable. However, there is no hiding the fact he looks so much happier in a French jersey than a United one. There may not be available like-for-like replacement for Pogba purely on ability. However, simply removing his ego from the dressing room could be as good as a new signing on its own.