Manchester United face a massive week in a season of dissatisfaction so far. But first they need to sort out the glaring problems in their midfield if they are going to end the season in a positive fashion.
They face a return to Huddersfield on Saturday as they aim to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Following that they travel to Spain for the first leg of their last 16 Champions League clash with Sevilla.
Then on the agenda will be a season-defining duel with old foe Antonio Conte as Chelsea travel to Old Trafford where Manchester United are in need of three points as their once solid grip on second place has unravelled following surprising draws over the Christmas period and two back-to-back away defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle United.
While there is no question that Jose Mourinho is doing a much better job at the club in his second season in charge, the fact remains everything he does is being compared to the genius next door who can do no wrong.
Yes, Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are having a fine season and deserve all the accolades that come their way, but Mourinho needs to forget about Manchester City, that battle is lost at least for this season. He has far bigger problems to address within his own camp.
It is clear a defence with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling bring a sense of nervousness from the stands and onto the pitch and Manchester United fans will be delighted to see Eric Bailly return to training and eventually bring some stability to the back four.
The bigger issue regards Paul Pogba, with recent reports suggesting the player is on Real Madrid’s radar this summer.
Although he’ll never admit it, Mourinho too must be thinking he should have looked elsewhere. In a season and a half of working together the ex-Chelsea boss has so far failed to get the best out of the £90m man.
Pogba himself looks unhappy in the role he is being asked to play. It is plain for all to see the French International cannot play in a two in midfield and anybody who watched him at Juventus would have seen him flourish on the left of a midfield three with Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal.
Suggestions that his nose has been put out of joint at the arrival of Alexis Sanchez are absurd. Surely any Manchester United player expects and demands the best players join their club. Wayne Rooney reportedly fell out with Sir Alex Ferguson because he wanted Mesut Ozil to join the club and felt his manager should go after world-class targets.
Pogba should relish playing with Sanchez and the Chilean could play a crucial role in reigniting the early season form of both Pogba and Romelu Lukaku who linked up extremely well at the start of the season.
Ask any Manchester United fan what Pogba’s best game was so far this season and they will tell you it was Everton away. The midfielder ran the show in a midfield three on the left.
This has to be the way forward if Manchester United are to win silverware and finish in the top four. The answer to Mourinho’s Pogba conundrum is the man he appointed captain and the man whom he has already added to his coaching staff for next season.
Michael Carrick has always been a calming influence in the heart of the Manchester United midfield and having missed the majority of the campaign with a heart problem, the former England man is back and has featured in recent games from the bench.
His return to full fitness could not have come at a better time and the player who has won 18 trophies in his twelve years at the club has one final job to do for the club he has served so well.
Mourinho has stated a midfielder is his priority this summer, which would suggest he holds little faith in the ability of Ander Herrera to do the job he demands, as Carrick prepares to hangs up his boots and Marouane Fellaini has yet to sign a new contract.
The United midfield was exposed against Tottenham and Newcastle in recent games with Pogba being replaced in both, unable to fulfil the role his manager has asked of him.
Bringing in Carrick would not only bring in a leader into the starting XI, of which the club are seriously lacking, but it would also allow Pogba to push out to the left of a midfield three in a 4-3-3 formation.
Carrick and Nemanja Matic would protect a nervous looking back four who have struggled in recent games despite statistically being the best defensive team in the Premier League.
Mourinho has to build the team around Paul Pogba and a midfielder will be signed this summer to allow the 24-year-old to flourish. For now Michael Carrick is the answer to Mourinho’s problems – certainly in the big games that are coming thick and fast.
The ability of the former England midfielder has often been overlooked by many but his ability to pick out a pass is a fresh today as it was all those years ago at West Ham.
Scott McTominay can come in when needed to replace the ageing Carrick and he looks a real prospect for the future.
Pogba also enjoyed a good working relationship with old Manchester United boy Patrice Evra overlapping on the left at Juventus and there is no reason Luke Shaw cannot offer the same.
For now Mourinho needs to let Pogba to play the role where he is most effective if Manchester United are to end their season in a positive fashion. Bringing in his captain will allow that.
Damien McEvoy, Pundit Arena