After six Premier League games, being six points off the relegation zone while nine points off the top is not where Manchester United are supposed to be. But it feels like that gets said a lot about United the past couple years. “Not where they’re supposed to be.”
United haven’t won a home game in the league all seasons. They’ve only managed one draw at Old Trafford. Their two wins were against Brighton, which required a penalty given after the game had ended, and against a Newcastle side that couldn’t have rolled over to have its belly tickled any more if they’d been pumped full of painkillers.
What’s more upsetting for United supporters is that they’ve sprinkled in two superb performances in the Champions League amongst all this trash. They beat PSG in Paris 2-0, and then utterly demolished RB Leipzig, who were leading the Bundesliga at the time, 5-0 in Manchester. So they are capable of the occasional inspiration. But they followed that Paris performance with one of the more insipid games in Premier League history in a 0-0 draw with Chelsea and then that win over Leipzig by getting thoroughly outplayed and outthought by Arsenal, which just happened to be the latter’s first win away from home against a “Big Six” side in nearly six years. United mustered just two shots on target and no “big” chances.
It has felt like manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has tried to follow those great performances in Europe by telling his side to do the same thing again, without bothering to consider that the opponent might do something different than the previous one. They defended deep and hit PSG on the counter, but Chelsea a few days later didn’t have nearly the attacking intent, which left both teams in a staring contest in the dark. Against Leipzig, United rolled out a midfield diamond formation, but that was the exact wrong thing to play against Arsenal’s 3-4-3, as the Gunners’ central midfield of Thomas Party and Mohammed Elneny had the run of the place, surrounded by a very separated and not in sync United midfield.
And so, as always, a lot of the criticism has centered around their most expensive player ever, Paul Pogba. And Pogba wasn’t any better than his teammates on Sunday, except he had the honor of giving away an incomprehensibly stupid penalty that won the game for Arsenal. It’s the second time he’s done that this season, following a “Paint Me Like Your French Girls” slide into Harry Kane against Spurs that got Spurs their sixth goal.
Pogba’s season has been trash. In six appearances in the league (four starts), he has no goals, no assists, and he hasn’t created anything either. All his rates, by the metrics, are just above dirt. According to footballreference.com, Pogba hasn’t even performed any goal-creating actions this season. Not a pass, not a dribble, not drawing a foul, not even belching in the direction of the opposition net.
Pogba hasn’t helped his cause by openly, forlornly talking about playing for Real Madrid one day, as he’s done in the past. There’s still bitterness about him missing most of last season with an injury that the club didn’t exactly think was totally legit. Pogba also falls into that trap that he’s one of those players that is so obscenely talented that he makes the game look incredibly easy when he’s going well. That can be mistaken, often, for a laziness that isn’t there when things aren’t going well.
But Sunday’s loss was another microcosm about how Solskjaer doesn’t have any idea where to play him. On the left of a four-man midfield diamond separates him from the game. He was shifted up to the left of a front three later in the game, but he’s not a forward, which only makes things worse.
Because Bruno Fernandes arrived last season and bagged a whole bunch of penalties, mostly in Pogba’s injury absence, he has taken the most advanced midfield role. Which leaves Pogba either playing deeper, which restricts his game, or trying to take up the same spaces Fernandes is already in.
The idea that Pogba has never done anything for United is a falsehood. He’s only two years removed from a 13-goal, nine-assist output, which is a supreme total for a midfielder. The idea that Pogba was some celestial being parachuted into Manchester from Juventus upon his arrival does him no favors. For most of his Juve career, he played alongside or in front of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio. The former could spray passes to him anywhere on the field. The latter did all the running and tackling.
In his only year in Turin after Pirlo’s departure, Pogba had his best season, but he still had Marchisio behind him. That’s United’s problem. They don’t have a security blanket in midfield. Nemanja Matic is too old and slow. Scott McTominay is too limited. Pogba is being asked to drop deep to help out, start attacks, and then get up to aid them as well. Or he’s shunted out to a wide position where he can’t really do any of it.
Pogba is no different from any of the other players, or even Solskjaer as limited as he may be as a manager, as they’re all victims of the waywardness and ineptness of the higher-ups at the club. There’s no plan, no path, and no vision. They lurch from idea to idea and player to player in the transfer market with no cohesion. It’s plug and play at every level.
Pogba could be doing more for sure, but the amount the club could be doing for him and every other player dwarfs that.