De Futebol Pogba Problem Deepens

The Guardians Johnathan Wilson wrote this piece entitled “Pogba problem deepens”

“The end was chaotic, Newcastle camped in their box with every block and clearance being roared to the rafters, but the tension of that final minute of injury time, and the similarly desperate scramble at around 80 minutes, should not allow the narrative to take hold that Manchester United were unlucky to lose. Rather they were desperately drab, short of inspiration, their forward line a strange bodge job of sparkly parts that do not really go together.

You dread to think what Jorge Valdano would have made of it. It was a battle between Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho, when in charge of Liverpool and Chelsea in the semi-final of the 2007 Champions League, that the former Argentina striker infamously likened to “a shit hanging from a stick”, insisting it was not art, no matter how august or appreciative the gallery in which it was placed.

This was not art either, but it was raucously enjoyed by home fans who may have doubts about their side’s quality, but certainly cannot doubt the commitment. Benítez kept setting and resetting the defensive line, as is his habit, but the win was rooted as much in the heart and desire of his players as his organisation. That and the strange disjointedness of United.

Beyond the crude imagery, Valdano bemoaned the lack of individual creativity in that 2007 game. He was frustrated by the absence of imagination in a clash between two sides whose managers seemed to lack any faith in their players to take the initiative and act outside a proscriptive blueprint.

This 18th meeting between the two former Real Madrid coaches was predictably tight, at least until Matt Ritchie put Newcastle ahead after 65 minutes, after which it took on a frenetic quality. Mourinho spoke positively of the effort of his own players, but that is a minimum requirement. “Were they lucky?” he asked of Newcastle. “Yes they were. But sometimes you attract that luck with your state of mind.”

Equally, though, it could be asked of Manchester United whether they were actually good. And the answer would be just as emphatic: no they were not, and that perhaps in turn encouraged Newcastle.

Maybe there is a sense of being spoiled by the verve of Manchester City and, to a lesser extent, Liverpool and Tottenham, but there was something unsatisfyingly scrappy about this United side, plenty of energy but not a huge amount in the way of quality or incision.

Every now and again someone will do something dangerous – they remain extremely gifted players – as when Nemanja Matic played in Anthony Martial with a finely weighted pass before the break, or when Alexis Sánchez shuffled through on the hour, but it all seemed very individualistic, piecemeal, lacking the cohesion of the most exciting sides in the division. The addition of Sánchez, it seems, has done nothing to solve the Paul Pogba problem. Perhaps in time a way will emerge by which all of United’s expensive stars can play together, but they have not found it yet.

Pogba remains an enormous frustration, manifestly talented and capable of the moments of penetration, but without an obvious role in a 4-2-3-1: he lacks the control, as Graeme Souness keeps pointing out, to play deep, but is too dependent on space in front of him to be the No 10. Here his touch was oddly heavy, his passing awry, his temptation always to overcomplicate, and it was no surprise when he was withdrawn as soon as United had fallen behind.

Sánchez’s arrival, meanwhile, has done little to improve the form of Romelu Lukaku, and has disrupted both Jesse Lingard, who was withdrawn with Pogba, and Martial, who seemed lost wide on the right. The two players who were giving United attacking verve, in other words, have seemingly been snuffed out by the arrival of another.

Those final seconds may have been tense for the home fans, but a team of United’s stature and aspirations should have rather more sophisticated modes of attack than simply lumping it into the box.