Paul Pogba remains the key to Manchester United’s title challenge

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Paul Pogba of Manchester United looks to pray during the FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on May 19, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Paul Pogba of Manchester United looks to pray during the FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on May 19, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images) /

Manchester United enter the season with high expectations, but there are serious questions about how Jose Mourinho will use several key players.

Paul Pogba didn’t win the World Cup Golden Ball, but he was surely in the conversation after a dominant tournament in the heart of France’s midfield. His goal in the final — an excellent curling finish to complete a move that began with an outrageous, 60-yard, volleyed through ball to Kylian Mbappe — was a perfect illustration of his remarkable skill set, and another excuse to ask a question that felt ever more pressing as Les Bleus advanced through the tournament: Why doesn’t he play like that for Manchester United?

After a promising first season at Old Trafford, Pogba’s second felt like a step backward. The arrival of Nemanja Matic was supposed to give him the freedom he craves to get forward, but he never seemed to find a settled role as Jose Mourinho vacillated between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1, and he was even briefly dropped from the side for 21-year-old Scott McTominay.

There were flashes, like his brace in United’s comeback win against Manchester City in April, but for the most part Pogba’s season was a disappointment, soundtracked by the same old discussions about his best position.

In some ways, then, his struggles mirror those of United’s in general. They have real quality — Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Nemanja Matic and new signing Fred should form the basis of a title-challenging midfield and attack — but Mourinho’s negative approach has often failed to get the best out of his players. And that’s not even to mention a defense that was far too reliant on David de Gea last season.

They were effective (81 points is nothing to sniff at, especially for a team who had so little to play for as City ran away with the title), but there remains a sense they add up to much less than the sum of their parts.

United had an impressive record against the rest of the Premier League’s big six last season, winning six, drawing one and losing three, but they were still far more passive in most of those games than many of their fans (and probably some of their players) would’ve liked, and their Champions League round of 16 exit to Sevilla showed Mourinho at his very worst.

A second-place finish to a record-breaking City side was hardly an embarrassment, but that loss to Sevilla, plus defeats in the FA Cup final to Chelsea and the League Cup fifth round to Bristol City, mean Mourinho enters his third season in a precarious position. That qualifies as a serious concern given he has only once lasted longer than three full seasons at a club.

And so back to Pogba, who will surely have to improve on last season if United are to mount a serious challenge for the title. Mourinho has already said he won’t start players returning from the World Cup in the Red Devils’ opener on Aug. 10. That will only make it more difficult to recalibrate the team to get the best out of his best player. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic.

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Or at least there’s one reason to be optimistic. Fred, bought from Shakhtar for £52 million, seems like the perfect compliment to Pogba and Matic in a midfield three, equally capable of setting tempo with the ball, protecting his defense and creating for teammates. That versatility should provide Pogba the base he needs to excel.

Whether it works out that way may depend more on Mourinho’s willingness to change his approach than it does on the skill sets of the players involved. Indeed, Matic’s arrival last summer was meant to do the same thing as Fred’s this summer.

Then there’s the matter of Mourinho’s relationship with Pogba, which seemed to sour last season as the player became frustrated with his role. His performances for France in an even more defensive midfield role did little, fairly or not, to dispel the idea his struggles have more to do with Mourinho than the position he’s been asked to play.

The bottom line is that in Pogba Mourinho has one of the best midfielders in the world. If he’s to return United to the summit of the Premier League, he must do everything he can to get the very best out of him.