Manchester United need a new plan in midfield. But what if the new plan is in fact the ‘old plan’?
United’s best runs under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have both come with Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in the side.
These came in two stretches, when Solskjaer first took over as caretaker boss at the end of 2019. A three-man midfield of Pogba, Matic and Ander Herrera led United to nine wins and one draw from the manager’s opening 10 games.
The second successful spell came after lockdown. A returning Paul Pogba lined up in midfield with a rejuvenated Matic and United finished the Premier League season unbeaten, winning six and drawing two of the eight games they started.
Why did United abandon the Matic and Pogba pairing?
United veered away from the Matic and Pogba partnership after the disastrous 6-1 loss to Tottenham one year ago.
That was understandable, but a few notes should be applied. Pogba was dealing with the after effects of Covid, the team had not had a pre-season, and a good portion of the bad result can be blamed on the terrible defending of from the players behind Matic and Pogba.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer abandoned the pairing in favour of the combination of Fred and Scott McTominay. It helped United get through so-called tougher games against top four rivals, plus the return win over Tottenham later in the season.
But we have seen the limitations too. Solskjaer’s decision to pick Fred and McTominay against Everton at the weekend was a contributing factor to United’s draw.
What makes Pogba and Matic work?
The key to Pogba and Matic’s previous success is about the combination of balance, physicality, and control.
Matic is a defensive minded midfielder, while Pogba’s best assets are linked to his attacking game, shown this season with his eye for a pass, providing seven assists already.
Together the pair give United’s team the balance required on both sides of the ball.
Both players are imposing from a physical point of view, giving United a threat and security from set pieces, and neither player would be shoved off the ball and outmuscled in the way Fred was by Demarai Gray at the weekend.
Matic possesses the intelligence too to make a foul when required, which Fred did not, and United were outdone on the counter attack.
Pogba and Matic are both strong passers of the ball too. You see this in terms of the volume of passes they play per game, and both players are capable of making line-breaking forward passes that Fred in particular simply does not offer.
Will a change be made?
It is quite clearly time for a re-think at United. Marcus Rashford’s return from injury will see him line up at left-wing, the position where Pogba has played this season.
United want Pogba in the line-up, and this won’t be a case of keeping Pogba left and shoving Rashford out on the right like late last season. Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho are both competing for the spot, while Anthony Martial is also looking like an option on the left too.
Pogba has to now move back into midfield in order to be a regular starter.
So this itself breaks up the ‘McFred’ partnership, and Fred’s late arrival back from the Brazil v Uruguay game on October 15 will mean he will not be in contention for the next league game away at Leicester on the 16th.
United then need to work out who is Pogba’s best partner. Donny van de Beek, Scott McTominay, or Nemanja Matic.
Has Matic still got it?
This is the key question facing United. Matic’s age, with the Serbian now 33, is the biggest mark against this partnership.
But after a fairly unimpressive start against Southampton, Matic has looked lively when called upon in other matches this season.
United have to manage his minutes carefully, but there is no reason why he should not be starting say five of the upcoming 10 games, alongside Pogba.
Scott McTominay would probably be the best fit alongside Pogba for the games Matic is deemed not ready to start.
What is really needed is a young, dynamic defensive midfielder, but we have been saying this all summer, and the club didn’t act. So for now it is about making the best of the options United have available.
Matic is still the best stylistic fit alongside Pogba in terms of his game, and United can still squeeze more out of him.
This can provide the blueprint going forward for if United finally add a midfielder in the January transfer window, and provide Pogba with some hope too.
Pogba’s contract situation remains a mystery, but we have to forget that for now. The immediate challenge is to make United’s midfield better, and that means playing him.
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