Saturday 24 March 2018

Why Paul Pogba's arrival will put Wayne Rooney's place under threat

To accommodate Paul Pogba, Jose Mourinho may have to choose between Wayne Rooney (R) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Getty
To accommodate Paul Pogba, Jose Mourinho may have to choose between Wayne Rooney (R) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Getty

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Jose Mourinho was happy and relaxed on Sunday afternoon, revelling in a comfortable opening day win for his new Manchester United side. He said the second half was "almost the complete performance" and then, kindling the flame of August optimism, rolled off a list of those who had not even started.

"When you look at the players who were not on the pitch," he said, "(Jesse) Lingard, (Marcus) Rashford, (Henrik) Mkhitaryan and Ashley Young, we have a lot."

Mourinho did not even need to mention Paul Pogba, the £89m man who was suspended as well as unready for this trip to the south coast. But, as in the Community Shield, it was impossible to watch United without thinking about where he will fit in. Mourinho hopes to get Pogba ready for the home game against Southampton this Friday, but in this team there is no perfect slot.

As in the Community Shield the previous Sunday, Mourinho lined his side up in his preferred conventional 4-2-3-1. The controlling base of the midfield was Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, who restricted an enthusiastic Bournemouth in the first half and then shut them out of the game in the second half.

Herrera played excellently, making the incisive pass through to Juan Mata which set up United's opener just before half-time. When United controlled the game in the second half, Herrera was at the heart of all of their best passing.

Pogba is likelier to play instead of Fellaini, who worked hard on Sunday and played as well as anyone could have hoped. He imposed his big build on the game and followed the manager's orders, which has always been immensely important to Mourinho. But Pogba matches Fellaini for size and strength while routing him for intelligence, skill and flair.

If Mourinho wanted to replace Fellaini for Pogba, then David Moyes' favourite Belgian could have few complaints. But to put Pogba in that role, blocking and shepherding opponents, starting attacks but not finishing them, would feel like a waste of his talent, as well as the money Ed Woodward spent to buy him.

This is not just a theoretical point either. Pogba played in exactly that role for most of France's campaign at Euro 2016, after Didier Deschamps decided that the best balance was a 4-4-1-1 designed to get the most out of Antoine Griezmann. So Pogba had to sit alongside Blaise Matuidi in the middle of the pitch, and had little impact on France's knock-out games. Moussa Sissoko, no-one's idea of a world-record breaking player, had more positive impact on the final than Pogba did.

That is why Mourinho might think that the way to get the best out of Pogba would be to re-jig his team. Pogba needs the freedom to run forward, shoot from distance and arrive in the box. To have him sitting in front of the defence would be to waste his legs. That is why Mourinho might want to build a better platform for him, with security behind.

That could be a three-man midfield, with one man sitting and two pushing on. This is what Mourinho calls "an open triangle" and is how Pogba played his best football at Juventus. At the start of Euro 2016 that is how Deschamps set up France, with Pogba on the front right tip of the three, but he played for Juventus on the left and it was never quite the same.


If Mourinho wanted to put Pogba in the role he is most comfortable with, that is what he would do. But that type of 4-3-3 cannot have a number nine and a number 10, but just one lone striker. And this is where the Pogba question becomes even bigger.

On Sunday Mourinho played Wayne Rooney behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as he did in the Community Shield. Both players scored, but it did not look like a partnership that will be sustained throughout the season. Both players wanted to do the same thing, coming short for the ball, because neither is quick enough to run in behind.

But on Sunday it was the man making his Premier League debutwho did it better. Ibrahimovic's touch is better than Rooney's, and he kept the ball better, and was sharper with it on the edge of the box. He scored one excellent goal and should have had an assist too. He flicked one ball through to Rooney, who could not convert.

Of course it is possible to play with two strikers, as Leicester City and Atletico Madrid did last season, but they need to be mobile and fast to make up for the lack of numbers elsewhere, and Rooney and Ibrahimovic are not.

But if Mourinho wants to get the best out of Pogba then he will surely have to switch to a lone-striker system, either the 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba as a number 10. That might be further forward than Pogba is used to, but it would make the most of his runs into the box and his defensive energy.

If Pogba is to play his best assertive football, then it would only be in a team with one centre-forward, which means choosing between Rooney and Ibrahimovic. Mourinho can play all three, but it would put tactical shackles on United's most important signing of the modern era. Rooney is the captain and is aiming for the goal-scoring record, but he is the man who needs to improve to survive. (© Independent News Service)

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