Sport Jose Mourinho has three bigger problems than Paul Pogba at Manchester United

Jose Mourinho has three bigger problems than Paul Pogba at Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho has three bigger problems than Paul Pogba at Manchester United

Paul Pogba has become a distraction for Jose Mourinho recently – but one you suspect the Manchester United manager has secretly welcomed. After a miserable performance away to Sevilla in which his side conceded 25 shots and had just six of their own, it was questions about the Frenchman that dominated his post-match press conference. But while the deterioration of Pogba’s form – and potentially his relationship with Mourinho – is an interesting topic, it is not the only problem United currently face. Nor is it the biggest. The dilemma surrounding the club-record signing should not be if he plays, but where he plays, because United are unequivocally a better team with an on-song Pogba pulling the strings. Pogba cannot, for example, be solely blamed for United’s lack of cohesion in the final third, or their increasing vulnerability in defence. And as his side prepare to host Chelsea in the Premier League, Mourinho should be paying a little more attention to issues beyond Pogba…

The hallmark of any Mourinho team is their defensive solidity. At the start of the season, it looked as though the self-proclaimed Special One had constructed yet another title-worthy back-line; the pragmatic yin to Manchester City’s vibrant yang. They only conceded in one of their first seven Premier League matches and have racked up 15 clean sheets this season, the most in the division. But more recently that defence has started to lose its air of impenetrability . Tottenham took just 11 seconds to breach them at Wembley, while Newcastle caused havoc from set-pieces. Then, in midweek, Sevilla had four times as many shots as United, only for Mourinho to write them off as ‘statistic shots’. Yet 13 were from inside the box, eight were on target and one effort produced a genuine save-of-the-season contender from David de Gea.

That the Spaniard is, once again, United’s best – and most active – player is a damning indictment of the team’s defensive solidity. According to Opta, based on Expected Goals, the average keeper would have conceded 33 goals where De Gea has let in just 19, the biggest difference in the Premier League – without him, they’re defence would likely be just four goals better off than relegation-threatened Swansea. United clearly give up far too many shots, while so much of the calmness and serenity that typified their early performances has evaporated too. Part of that is due to the absence of Eric Bailly, the commanding, powerful centre-back who has only just returned after four months out. But can he alone plug the leak? Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, the latter hampered by injuries, have become sloppy and careless, while using a pair of 32-year-old full-backs, both converted from wingers, does not feel like a long-term strategy.

The quality of protection offered by the midfielders in front of United’s defence has also dropped off. The bulk of the responsibility for that has unfairly landed on Pogba, though partner Nemanja Matic should not be absolved from blame. The Serb is not a good front-foot defender, he does not really possess the energy or athleticism to press high, and that saw Mourinho look to Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay to provide those traits in Seville. When Mourinho signed Matic, he spoke of the need for a specialist, someone with the defensive skillset to bring balance to the side. His initial performances suggested they had got exactly what they required, and Chelsea’s £40m valuation seemed to be a bargain. But as the season rolls on, Matic is just starting to show why Antonio Conte felt he was a little too limited.

There was a moment against Sevilla when he made a rare foray forward, down the right flank, and just seemed to give up any pretence of being able to beat his man. He lacked the requisite pace, cunning and control, which admittedly is not his forte, and it underlined how singularly defence-focused his skillset is. But United should be just a little concerned by how little those skills actually stack up against his peers. In the Premier League, there are 13 midfielders who have attempted more tackles than Matic, and he is even further down the list (22nd) for tackles won. The Serb is someone that cleans up – and that’s reinforced by his interception numbers, the fourth best in the division – but he’s not an enforcer, he is not an aggressive ball-winner, nor does he move the ball quickly enough. That is patently what United, and Pogba especially, lack right now.

As much as the early optimism that surrounded United this season owed to their solidity, it was also based on the swagger and bravado of their attack. They scored 21 goals though the first seven games of the season (3 goals per game) – but in the subsequent 20 matches have scored just 30 times (1.5 goals per game). United’s attack feels devoid of any real constructs or thought process, and Alexis Sanchez’s arrival has only made the problem worse. Mourinho’s approach to attacking is to generally let his players figure it out for themselves, a principle that lends itself to individual moments of brilliance. With Man City, for example, you get a sense that every player is connected to the move and knows where they should be, what run to make, where to play the ball. United’s attack is more spontaneous.

The problem that arises from that is, when players are lacking form or confidence, there is no structure to fall back on and it feels directionless. Sanchez was supposed to provide fresh impetus to a stagnating attack, but his own boom-or-bust approach has not meshed with the team yet. He often looks lively individually, but the team do not. The lack of reference points has been particularly problematic for Romelu Lukaku. Since the very end of September, the £75m man has scored just five goals in 19 Premier League appearances. Mourinho is happy with his hold-up play – though there have been a few shocking moments and woeful touches her and there – but he was signed to score goals. His movement could be a little better, his finishing could be more clinical, but most of all he would benefit from a more settled and well-drilled attack.