All great things have a way of coming about. Things don't randomly bear fruits and get the spotlight. There is a solid base, a foundation which is holding it all together. Be it any organization, a country or a football team, they all depend heavily on a link which is “centre” to all of its control. In football, that central point is the midfield.
For Manchester United, the midfield has been an area of great dilemma ever since the departure of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. who catapulted the team into greatness and history by winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in one single season.
Post 2003 Manchester United suffered as a result of the changing times. The two-man midfield in their typical 4-4-2 formation became obsolete. More athletic players with enhanced fitness levels, increase in the number of attacking full-backs made it hard for two midfielders to cope up with the rising demands in the center of the park.
After missing out on the title for three seasons after 2003, United acquired the services of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Owen Hargreaves and Anderson to bolster their midfield, but injury to Hargreaves, and Anderson's failure to live up to the promise meant United continued to have deficiencies in the central midfield area.
They did win the Champions League in 2007/08 season but that was much down to brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo who broke all kinds of goal scoring records.
Sir Alex Ferguson did his best to eliminate this underlying problem with tactically tweaking teams and making use of utility players in the years after Ronaldo left. He also had to recall Scholes out of retirement in 2012 to salvage United's season. But when the Scot retired after winning the league in 2012/13 season, Scholes followed suit, leaving a gaping hole behind. An imminent replacement was in order, the question was, who?
2013/14 saw the arrival of David Moyes from Everton who also brought Maroune Fellaini with him, assuming the lanky Belgian will be what helps United cope with yet another transition in the modern game.
Barcelona and Real Madrid, who began enjoying greater success on all fronts, played with a 4-3-3 formation where an addition of another man in the midfield helped the striker solely focus on scoring goals and linking up play. Some teams tweaked that formation to bring out 4-2-3-1 as it was a bit more balanced and helped full backs to be covered by respective midfielders on their side if they joined the attack. Manchester United employed this formation but never had the right players to execute those intricacies. They finished 7th that season as Moyes was sacked.
In 2014/15 they bought Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera. Three proven players, were expected to gel in well with the team, and provide the pace and resilience required to maintain midfield possession. While the jury is still out on whether Loius van Gaal gave either of them a fair opportunity or not, it is clear that the formations he picked, and the style of play he enforced, didn't suit the newcomers. Barring Herrera, the other two never cemented their place in the starting XI.
Post Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho took over the reins and he demanded the team to be parallel with his thinking and philosophies. He also came with a list of players, and the name on the top was of a certain French midfielder everybody wanted to get hold off.
So, United ventured into a territory which was familiar and not at the same time for them. They got Paul Pogba back by smashing the world record fees and finally had a world class midfielder with the right kind of flair and exuberance the United fans craved. Pogba was 23 when he arrived again at Old Trafford with the whole world's eyes on him. Every single mistake of his was scrutinized and frugal comparisons made with fellow countryman N'Golo Kante, who won the PFA Player of the year award as he helped Chelsea to the title. His cost to the Blues was one third of Pogba's fee. While Kante is defensively minded, Pogba’s talent leans towards being more creative.
Even though Pogba had his best goal scoring season in 2016/17 where he created 53 chances, the most by any Manchester United player, all the experts came to the conclusion he had an underwhelming season. Pogba had to play in deep-lying positions sometimes, where he was not involved with attack at all and where his defensive frailties were exposed.
Jose Mourinho had to solve United's midfield puzzle. By signing Nemanja Matic from Chelsea he added stability to their midfield. The Serbian was an anchor in the Chelsea side that won the title in 2014/15. While Cesc Fabregas was the play maker, Matic with Ramirez covered behind him helping out his teammate to be free of some duties inhibiting the talent he possesses. The Spanish midfielder was a talisman in that title-winning Chelsea team, and Matic’s effectiveness became obvious.
Herrera got raving plaudits from the footballing world after his shunning of Eden Hazard and Chelsea's attacking threat when the two teams met at Old Trafford. Herrera made one and scored the other, showcasing how a good a player he can be if used well.
With Matic and Herrera behind the Frenchman to cover up, Pogba has now got the freedom to exude his flair and flamboyance into this dull Manchester United team.
There are no more excuses left for Manchester United, Mourinho and Pogba. They scored 54 goals last season, nowhere near the number expected out of them given their expenditure to restore the club. This is a make or break season for the trio, and with the reinforcements brought in, a sub-par performance from United will not go down well with the fans. They've already experienced that for 4 consecutive years. Their first test for this new-look midfield that will hope to bring back United's heydays will first an acid test against Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup on Tuesday.
Updated Date: Aug 08, 2017 19:02 PM