Manchester United’s first real acid test of the season came on Saturday at St.Mary’s, the Reds held onto a 1-0 victory against a Southampton side that controlled the match for large periods.
Now, you may ask how this can be United’s biggest test when they have already dropped points away to Stoke City this term, however this most recent match was without Paul Pogba in the team with the Frenchman set for a somewhat lengthy spell on the sidelines due to a muscular injury.
You always expect Stoke City to galvanise themselves for a home match against one of the bigger teams in the Premier League this early in the season, they were vibrant whilst Jose Mourinho’s charges had an off-day, the result wasn’t a huge surprise.
Southampton, however, was different, this was a match against a team that struggle at home but has fantastic talent within their squad, it was also United’s first away match without their standout midfield player.
There is often a fear amongst supporters, particularly with the elite clubs where the margins are so small, that when your best, or most expensive, player goes down through injury, the wheels are going to fall off spectacularly.
Arsenal found it so often with Cesc Fabregas, Manchester United retained the same fear with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and Liverpool were always panicked anytime Fernando Torres took an awkward fall.
This is part and parcel of the game, yet when you lose a player of Paul Pogba’s quite simply outrageous technical skill-set, you are certain to be a weaker unit as a result.
Manchester United had to show on Saturday that they could face up to tests without their talismanic Frenchman. As a team they did just that, they overcame a spirited Southampton side, although the match itself gave some significant pointers as to how the team will react to losing their most creative midfielder.
The house of cards
The house of cards that is Manchester United’s 2017/18 season will not collapse without Paul Pogba, the team will continue to win matches, albeit in a rather more pragmatic manner.
One of the intricacies of the burgeoning partnership between Nemanja Matic and the 24-year-old has been just how the pair complements each other’s respective qualities. One of the fashionable analyses of the summer was that Pogba needed a midfield partner to protect him, someone to free him up to be more creative.
Matic has been that presence and so much more beyond it. The Serbian has surprised Manchester United supporters by how quickly he has hit the ground running, in addition to how impressive his own technical attributes are.
One of the concerns raised when people were comparing Fabinho to the former Chelsea midfielder was that the Brazilian’s passing range far outmatched that of the Serbian international. Now whilst it is unfair to compare players across different leagues, Matic hasn’t let anybody down with his passing so far this season.
Obtaining the ability to suffocate opponents
He has arrived at Old Trafford and immediately brought control to a midfield and his confidence on the ball allows United to play in a manner that reflects one of Bayern Munich’s greatest displays under Pep Guardiola.
This statement is not to be confused with a suggestion that United under Mourinho are an in-vogue, mesmeric attacking force like Guardiola’s Bayern were, but they can position themselves in a similar position defensively.
One of the defining moments of the Spanish coach’s time in Bavaria was a 7-1 victory over Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in the Champions League group stage. This wasn’t the Roma of the financially crippled Serie A age of 2010-2012; this was a bright team that under Rudi Garcia’s guidance were quite astonishingly pushing Juventus domestically.
Bayern Munich dominated them from start to finish through the use of an incredibly high defensive line, Guardiola’s defensive players set up on the halfway line in order to keep the Italian side pressed into incredibly contracted zones of play within their own half.
With Matic able to dictate play in midfield there is very little risk of him losing the ball, such is the confidence his teammates have in him there has been a positional shift in United’s setup. Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Daley Blind now tend to hold a line just shy of the halfway line.
Mourinho’s United are not as fluid as Bayern were in Rome, yet they can suffocate their opponents in much the same way.
This playing style only works when Pogba is present, the Frenchman has certain intangibles that give the team something extra. He is one of very few players that are confident no matter what, he is a unique personality and this manifests itself on the pitch.
He always wants the ball. When United are struggling or under pressure, he will take the ball on and bring others into play.
Biggest hindrance resolved
Under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, the environment at Old Trafford was far from a positive one.
There was sizable pressure and it showed. It wouldn’t at all be unfair to suggest that the squad had hiders in it during those three seasons. This isn’t to say they weren’t talented or hard-working, but when the pressure was on, they quite simply didn’t want the ball.
One of Mourinho’s biggest challenges when he walked into Carrington was to eradicate that overly cautious mentality that had seeped into the club’s modern DNA. The immediate introduction of world record signing, Pogba, was a huge help to that endeavour.
His desire to take the ball on no matter the situation was a huge help to teammates around him, Old Trafford wasn’t too big a stage for a young player who had reached a Champions League final with Juventus.
12 months or so on, almost every player in United’s starting eleven wants the ball, they are confident and United’s performances have reflected that. Matic has dovetailed with the Frenchman as opposed to merely protecting him and there have been some complete team performances as a result.
Still a big miss
The second-half against Southampton showed that whilst United’s stars are confident, very few of them can provide what Pogba does. Marouane Fellaini is in his finest run of form as a United player but he doesn’t have the same qualities as his teammate.
As the Saints grew in confidence and started stringing passes together, United dropped back into a defensive shape and looked to close out a result.
Now make no mistake, this is a tactical shift that United have used in almost every single Premier League game this season, albeit not to this extent. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team probed and look for the opening but a resolute defensive line won the day.
Unlike previous matches though, United lacked Pogba’s intelligence. Mario Lemina was allowed to control the match with ease from midfield, there was an attempt at pressing him but there is nothing easier to play around than a one-individual press, just watch videos of Spain’s ‘Rondo’ training sessions.
Without Pogba there was nobody to match the Gabon international and run at him when United had the ball, Lemina simply didn’t get put into a position where he was worked to a point of fatigue, an exact point of fatigue that usually allows Mourinho’s team to go on and score the second, third and fourth goals.
The club’s resolve will be further tested
United won’t necessarily lose goals in Pogba’s absence but they won’t be able to play as freely as they have done for much of the 2017/18 season so far. A football season is all about peaks and troughs, you have to manage your squad in the low moments and an injury to Pogba is such a situation.
Jose Mourinho will have no qualms about his team battling for 1-0 victories in a time of difficulty and supporters need to be ready for that. Pogba often doesn’t get the credit he deserves but he is the beating heart of the modern, entertaining Manchester United environment that has been cultivated since the Portuguese coach arrived.
Another facet of this team though is determination and resolve, in Pogba’s absence this resolve will be tested an awful lot more. As such, Manchester United won’t stop winning without their French midfielder, but the team’s style will be very different, a chameleon-like ability to change that will likely strike fear into their title rivals as the season progresses.
For United supporters, Saturday’s tense 1-0 victory wasn’t a memorable one, for Jose Mourinho it was a victory that indicates to him that he now has a team capable of overcoming adversity, a characteristic that historically defines Premier League champions.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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