Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side fell to a 1-0 defeat against Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle side at St James’ Park over the weekend.
Further points dropped in the futile race to close the gap on Manchester City, more impetus for the chasing pack, namely Liverpool and Spurs and the same questions left on fan’s lips at the final whistle.
This United side lack balance. Mourinho is reticent to stray from his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation, but the reality is that formation doesn’t allow him get his best players on the pitch in their best positions. At least not the way he favours them to line up. Most of the problems United face when they struggle, as they did against Newcastle, stem from the two-man midfield.
Mourinho’s first-choice pairing is Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba. Much has been written about Pogba’s inability to play in a two. His poor positioning and excessive touches on the ball make it difficult for him to be effective in this position. Against a Newcastle side willing to put the boot in and scrap their way up the table he simply didn’t seem to fancy it.
There was talk of a slight injury suffered in the warm up but his presence on the pitch indicates that both the player and United’s medical team thought he was fit to play. Not good enough again from the Frenchman.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, it’s sitting on the bench beside Mourinho. Scott McTominay has had a couple of assured performances so far this season, nothing spectacular as of yet but the role doesn’t call for anything spectacular. McTominay already has a much better understanding of the position than Pogba when it comes to breaking up opposition attacks, getting the ball moving forward as constructively as possible and back the play up from there. It’s not rocket science, but it does seem beyond Pogba.
That’s not to say that McTominay should just replace Pogba in the starting XI, he should simply push the Frenchman further forward to give the team a solid base to build upon. Of United’s front four positions Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez are guaranteed to start; that leaves the right-sided attacking role and the No. 10 position up for grabs. Playing Pogba behind Lukaku relieves him from the defensive responsibilities he’s clearly not capable of fulfilling.
If Mourinho insists on persevering with this formation – and United are to continue to make the kind of progress they’ve displayed – the No. 10 position is the only role that allows Pogba to make the most of his considerable talent without compromising the structure of the formation.
The league is gone and lifting the Champions League is a long shot. McTominay has already been blooded, giving him regular time between now and the end of the season could help him kick on. It could also save United going into the transfer market for a midfielder when Michael Carrick retires and Marouane Fellaini potentially departs.
While it may not be the most glamorous solution to United’s midfield woes, it is the most practical and low risk.
Mourinho has gone some way to shedding his reputation as a manager who doesn’t give youth a chance already at United, giving McTominay even a semi-regular starting place would dispel that notion completely.