Manchester United’s balance problem

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In the wake of England’s bittersweet Euro 2020 adventure, the focus is now shifting to the return of domestic football. Already active in the transfer window, Manchester United have plenty of work to do to ensure another season doesn’t end trophy-free.

New talent is needed to close the gap to Manchester City and Liverpool – Jadon Sancho will go a long way in that regard. However, it is equally important that new signings enable the current crop of players to perform at their best. To do this, Solskjaer must use the window to deal with the imbalance that plagued the squad in the latter stages of last season.

This imbalance stems from the broad positions. After his winning goal off the bench against AC Milan in March, Paul Pogba occupied the left wing in five of the nine remaining Premier League games. To accommodate this, Marcus Rashford was pushed to the right wing. Not only did this significantly reduce Rashford’s output, but Pogba was unable to fill this shortfall as his returns remained low. Pogba did not score during that period and contributed only two assists. While this is clearly a poor return for a Manchester United winger, especially one of Pogba’s caliber, the negative impact it had on Rashford was far more significant.

Since being moved to Tottenham right before the game on April 11, Rashford has recorded just two assists and one goal in the remaining seven games. Incidentally, the goal against Liverpool came five minutes after he was shifted back to his favorite berth on the left wing. Before the game to Tottenham, he had scored 10 goals and provided nine assists in 30 Premier League appearances, mostly from the left.

It is clear to anyone who has seen him play that Rashford prefers the left-hand position. His greatest asset is using his incredible pace and dribbling to get behind defenders, stretch the field and create opportunities for teammates. Equally impressive is his goal threat. His ability to intervene and finish is devastating, as evidenced by the fact that he has racked up double digit goals in his last three Premier League seasons. No less important is the fact that he provides balance to the side when playing on the left. As a modern winger, he tries to keep his breadth until the final stage, then he can step in to make room for a Luke Shaw overlap.

Combined with Mason Greenwood (or Sancho next season) on the opposite flank, this stretches the opposition and creates spaces in the middle for Cavani and Fernandes to take advantage of. When played on the right, he loses the ability to intervene and shoot at his favorite foot, as his left is noticeably weaker. Therefore, not only does he keep his width longer which prevents an overlap of Wan-Bissaka, he also loses some of his target threat.

Marcus Rashford.

Pogba, on the other hand, is by no means a conventional winger. He often drifts in from the left to create opportunities for his teammates. While this leaves room for Luke Shaw, it causes congestion in the middle and makes the team skewed. He also lacks the pace and goal threat you would expect from a winger on a Manchester United side who should push City and Liverpool to the end next season. Despite his obvious talent, questions have often been raised about him at United, but Euro 2020 served as a timely reminder that Pogba’s abilities are world-class when used correctly and Manchester United should try to unleash it.

Historically, he’s been at his best when he’s allowed to act as a wandering playmaker. This was the case for Juventus when he played on the left side of a midfield three, and for France during the World Cup when Matuidi and Kante took on most of the defensive responsibilities. His defensive duties should not be abandoned; however, it must be recognized that they are not his strong point, and his midfield partners must be chosen to reflect this.

Paul Pogba is Manchester United's record tally.
Paul Pogba.

The solution to Manchester United’s equilibrium problem is simple. Draw a defensive midfielder who is able to play as an anchor under his own power. This would free Pogba from the double pivot in which he has consistently failed at United. Instead, he could play on the left side of midfield in a 4-3-3 which he is known to prefer. Tactically, this could lead Fernandes to shift his position a little deeper to ensure balance as a right-sided member of midfield three. However, Guardiola proved with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne that it was not only possible but very effective to fit natural tens into the eight reels.

This would also allow Rashford to retake his favored left-wing position. While this would be a more offensive starting lineup than Solskjaer currently opts for, the right signings would make it possible. Varane’s touted signing would give Solskjaer more freedom, as he would significantly improve United’s solidity. Conveniently, he has spent most of his career playing behind a midfield three, although Casemiro was one of them, one of the world’s best anchors. United have no one even close to his standard, but there are potential candidates to fill that role.

The obvious Premier League option is Declan Rice. He excelled as an anchor for West Ham alongside the marauding Thomas Soucek and proved this summer that he is capable of competing with the very best. Wilfried Ndidi is another, having kept Leicester’s midfield in check for years alongside the more attacking Tielemans. Looking at the continent there is a multitude of options, although they come with greater risk as they have never played in the Premier League. The young Aurélien Tchouaméni has had an exceptional season for Monaco: he has a great talent as a winner, but also has strong ball progressions.

The even younger Eduardo Camavinga has sparked an interest in European football and undoubtedly has the talent to succeed. Although it can be a mistake to ask a young player to play in such a disciplined role that the team relies so heavily on. If this anchor isn’t up to the task, United would be very vulnerable in a 4-3-3. But if they can do what it takes, Solskjaer could use the talents of Pogba, Fernandes, Rashford, Sancho and Cavani in a unique offensive unit. That is a delightful prospect for any manager.

Paul Pogba is Manchester United's record signing 1

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