Tuesday, September 28, 2021
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Man Utd’s midfield balance still needs fixing

There was a slightly awkward exchange in the press conference after the game at Molineux when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked where exactly Paul Pogba was playing in Manchester United’s fortunate 1-0 win over Wolves.

“Have you not seen the game, where Paul was playing? Go back and see the game, you can see where Paul was playing.”

It was a little tetchy but this was indeed a change of position for Pogba after operating on the left of a front three in the win over Leeds – in which he provided four assists – and the draw at Southampton in which he set up Mason Greenwood’s equaliser.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United’s win over Wolves in the Premier League.

With Cristiano Ronaldo’s return imminent, the competition for those forward positions increases. The temptation to fit Pogba in as one of the two midfielders is understandable. But it feels like a fudge.

The problem is that the switch brings negatives as well as positives – both of which were evident against Wolves.

Naturally, Solskjaer preferred to accentuate the positive

“I think we struggled in the first half to get the rhythm, the hustle and bustle of the game, it was really quick. In the second half, I thought we settled it really well.

“Paul took control of the game and did really, really well. A couple of times he plays Bruno [Fernandes] in. In the first half, he is offside. In the second half, he does the same.”

There was a period in the second half during which Pogba’s influence did begin to tell. Wolves’ intensity dipped and he was able to dictate play. Nobody on the pitch completed more passes. With options ahead of him, he can make this game look easy.

The difficulties come without the ball.

Twice early on Wolves were able to counter-attack at pace.

Firstly, Adama Traore danced clear of Pogba and Fred and was soon running at Raphael Varane. Shortly afterwards, Ruben Neves was breaking, with Pogba in pursuit, and it required a fine block from Aaron Wan-Bissaka to prevent Francisco Trincao from scoring.

Paul Pogba and Fred were caught out by Adama Traore on the counter-attack in Manchester United's win over Wolves

Image:
Paul Pogba and Fred were caught out by Adama Traore on the counter-attack

Both moments featured some hapless play from Fred. He was the one who gifted the ball to Traore. He was the one who could only shovel the ball towards Trincao in space.

Few are convinced that Fred has the qualities required to take on the holding role in a Premier League title-winning team. Even fewer will believe that the Brazilian is equipped for the task if he is to have Pogba for company as his midfield partner.

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The Super Sunday panel discuss Paul Pogba’s tackle on Ruben Neves

Wolves boss Bruno Lage alluded to the issue afterwards.

“One thing I know – because I was also at a big club – the big players from the big clubs, they don’t like not to have the ball,” said the former Benfica manager.

It was simply too easy for Wolves to play through United on Sunday.

In total, according to Opta, the home side registered three shots directly from fast breaks, the joint-most by any team in a Premier League game so far this season.

Neither Leeds nor Southampton counter-attacked against United quite like this, but Fred had been alongside Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic respectively in those matches.

It was surprising that Solskjaer eschewed that extra protection for this one given the opposition. With Pogba stationed on the right of the midfield, it rather encouraged Traore to run at the United defence unchecked from that inside left channel.

That might explain the thinking behind the inclusion of the hard-working Daniel James to play ahead of Pogba on the right wing but that is unlikely to be a long-term solution.

Greenwood showed once moved to the flank to accommodate Edinson Cavani’s introduction as a second-half substitute that he can be potent from that position.

With Jadon Sancho making his full Premier League debut at Molineux and Ronaldo set to make his comeback appearance at home to Newcastle after the international break, Solskjaer is not lacking for high-quality forward options at Old Trafford.

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David De Gea and Paul Pogba joke about the return of Cristiano Ronaldo

But where does that leave Pogba?

A victim, perhaps, of his own flexibility.

In trying to keep the talent on the pitch, Solskjaer risks not only compromising one of his most gifted players but losing matches as a result of his imbalanced team.

United were fortunate to escape against Wolves. Other teams will not be so generous. But are there the solutions in this squad?

The lack of balance is best illustrated by the fact that while Ronaldo will displace someone in this side and there is Marcus Rashford to return too, it is McTominay who most obviously has a place just waiting for him in this line-up once he is fit again after groin surgery.

It was once said that Ronaldo could play anywhere. He may have to. Because while United are not short of world-class talent, that midfield area still looks like a weakness that will be exploited.

It did not cost them here. It might cost them the title.

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