They’d parked the bus to earn a 0-0 draw away to Liverpool the week before and laboured to a single-goal victory over Benfica in the Champions League midweek, but Manchester United were widely expected to return to form against Huddersfield Town on Saturday afternoon.
The newly-promoted outfit have held their own thus far in the Premier League, but United are considered title contenders; this should have been routine for José Mourinho‘s men.
It wasn’t, however. The Red Devils slumped to a 2-1 defeat at John Smith’s Stadium, and it was no more than they deserved.
Mourinho was very critical of his charges after the game. “I don’t even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor,” he said. “When I lose matches, I like to lose because the opponent was better and had more quality. But when you lose because of attitude, that is really bad.”
United‘s biggest downfall against the Terriers, as it was against Liverpool and, to an extent, Benfica, was their inability to create enough chances. And the continued absence of Paul Pogba lies at the heart of their creative dearth.
The £89million French midfielder has been out since September with a hamstring injury picked up early in the 3-0 Champions League win over Basel, and no date has been set for his return.
Mourinho, evidently frustrated by the situation, admitted in a press conference last week that he is still unsure when he can expect his record signing to return, with the player currently recuperating in the USA.
With Pogba not due back in action any time soon, it falls to Mourinho to find solutions to the problems the former Juventus superstar’s absence is causing.
The 24-year-old midfielder’s value to United is only truly appreciated when he is unavailable: the Red Devils grossly miss his transitional ability, his creative flair, eye for a killer pass and goal threat.
Pogba had begun the campaign in fine fettle, scoring twice and registering two assists in the Premier League. Despite having now missed more than half of United‘s league fixtures of 2017/18, he still ranks in the team’s top five for chances created (nine), and conjured more scoring opportunities than any colleague last term (57).
The 20-time champions unquestionably miss Pogba’s individual contribution, but it is the effect on the team’s dynamic of his absence that is really hurting United. Without their star man, they lack fluidity: the 49-cap Les Bleus midfielder is not only a brilliant individualist, he also connects the dots for Mourinho’s side, bringing the best out of his team-mates.
That much is evident by the fact that United’s overall creativity has dropped off significantly in his absence, more so than can be explained by the simple removal of his own creative contribution.
In the first four Premier League games of the season, with Pogba in the team, United had an average expected goals (xG) – a metric which applies a probability value to the chances a team creates based on historical data – of 2.82 per game. Without the Frenchman’s presence, the Red Devils are averaging 1.79 xG per game.
So far this term, United have created 98 chances in their nine league games, a return which ranks them sixth in the English top flight. Sixty-one of those chances were created in the four games that Pogba has featured in, with only 37 coming in the subsequent five fixtures.
The Liverpool game could be considered somewhat of an outlier, with United’s paltry 0.24 xG a result of Mourinho’s hyper-conservative tactics. But the same can’t be said of Saturday’s meeting with Huddersfield, in which the Old Trafford club enjoyed 77.9 per cent of possession but amassed an xG of just 0.81 to the home side’s 1.34.
Without Pogba, United are not the same prospect. That is a very simple conclusion to draw: Pogba is their best outfield player by some distance, of course they are going to miss him when he’s not around. But, thus far, they have not mitigated well for his absence.
If they hope to avoid being tagged as fair-weather players, there are some key members of the United squad who need to step up when the No.6 isn’t available, picking up the creative mantle and taking responsibility for pushing the side forward.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s early-season form has evaporated, and Juan Mata is too often passive in his approach. Anthony Martial, too, has been less effective in recent weeks than he had been in the opening games of the campaign.
Others, of course, such as Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini (who is also injured) tend to assume Pogba’s position in the pitch, but it is the aforementioned creative players who have the ability to ensure his influence is missed as little as possible.
Mourinho, too, must seek ways to minimise the impact of Pogba’s enforced layoff. The Portuguese coach is regarded as a master tactician, but these are the scenarios in which his tactical nous is most needed. The solutions are far from simple, but there is no doubt that more could, and should, be done.
Injuries are unfortunate and hard to plan for, yet they are a fact of life in football. Any team would feel the loss of a player of Pogba’s ability, but United already lacked numbers and quality in midfield.
Perhaps more assurances should have been given to gifted youngster Andreas Pereira, currently on loan with Valencia in La Liga having seen no immediate path to first-team action at Old Trafford.
The 20-year-old playmaker is inexperienced at Premier League level but has the technique and creativity to ease the burden on others with less ability in such areas. Or else the summer transfer market should have seen another midfield addition alongside the defence-minded Nemanja Matić.
But if Pogba is going to be out for much longer, United and Mourinho must find a way to cope better with his absence.