Wednesday 26 April 2017

Now comes the test for Paul Pogba, can he learn from the Manchester derby?

Manchester United's Paul Pogba walks off the pitch dejected after the Manchester derby
Manchester United's Paul Pogba walks off the pitch dejected after the Manchester derby

Ian Herbert

The sense you get from the top of Manchester United is that their spending is now done until next summer. The strategy when it comes to the January window is only to act if an opportunity unexpectedly becomes available and the solitary transactions in the past two winters have been Juan Mata (£37.1m) and Victor Valdes on a free. Nothing feels different this time around.

And so it is that the missing United component in a Manchester derby performance which offered substantial grounds for encouragement must come from within. Which is to say - on-field leadership at the back of the team which allows United to deal with the threat they are facing. The man who can deliver it – and who has most to learn from a sobering Manchester derby experience – is Paul Pogba.

The £89m has been paid and though we all know very well what he delivers on the ball, we will now learn more about his ability to be an organiser and the core of the team’s intelligence: what the Spanish like to call the centro neuralcico (brain centre).

Positionally, Pogba struggled on Saturday. As Michael Cox states in an excellent analysis, he was caught ahead of the ball when City won possession back and that left Marouane Fellaini exposed as Pepe Guardiola’s players drove ahead at pace.

Pogba won’t have been the first new United defender to find his first big challenge a difficult one. Patrice Evra famously described the experience of playing City akin to being “in a washing machine” after his debut against the same side in 2006 and lasted 45 minutes. Sir Alex Ferguson pulled him out of the fray at half time and as Evra later described it: “He told me off, told me to sit down, watch English football and learn.” Evra went on to be one of the great leaders of the United defence, adored by Old Trafford for his intelligence, passion and drive.

The money paid out for Pogba needs to buy the same qualities. Mourinho complained after the game that his defenders had ignored his instructions by playing to “the first station” – by which he meant: passing the ball straight and short out of defence to a midfield which was then pressed out of possession. But a side with a leader at the hub of the team would not allow that to happen twice.

A leader would have been commanding United to go long to Zlatan Ibrahimovich and so beat the press.

But what Mourinho will also be looking for is a Pogba who will command the space in front of the defence and know instinctively when to stay and go – because that decision is fundamental to facing Pep Guardiola’s sides.

That was precisely the area of the field that worried Ferguson when United played Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were at an age when their preference was to defend the space. But Ferguson always felt that with the threat in front of the defence it was imperative to be more dynamic and to get into that area Lionel Messi occupies. Barcelona eclipsed United than night.

In an earlier generation, Ferguson looked for a way of dealing with Steve McManaman in the 1996 FA Cup Final against Liverpool. McManaman was a difficult customer because he floated behind the forwards and was difficult to pick up. Ferguson described years later how Eric Cantona had suggested that Roy Keane be dropped in front of the back four to deal with him. Ferguson’s willingness to hear Cantona and employ what he suggested spoke for the quality of his man management.

Pogba is a mere 23 and he will have far easier games than Saturday’s to develop his immense talent. He knows now that the Premier League is bigger than him, not vice versa. The fascination will be in watching if and how it helps him and his game to grow.

Independent News Service

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