The stars aligned for Manchester United at the Parc des Princes, as a late Marcus Rashford winner earned a deserved three points and a 2-1 win for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Tricky Reds against last season’s Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain.
Everything worked out for Solskjaer and United in the first half. The manager’s plan to start Fred and Scott McTominay in front of a back-five completely nullified PSG’s greatest threats after Anthony Martial won an early penalty for Bruno Fernandes to convert, giving United the lead at half-time.
Early moments in the second-half saw PSG swap midfielder Idrissa Gueye for striker Moise Kean, causing problems and leading to a freakish own goal from Martial. United were under the ropes when Solskjaer made the change that would eventually lead to a dominant spell and even a winner for United.
Solskjaer substituted new-signing Alex Telles, who had a solid debut at left wing-back, for central midfielder and eventual assist-maker Paul Pogba to create an overload in the area of the pitch that PSG depleted by substituting Gueye.
Part of United’s struggle early this season was an opposition insistence to target United’s 4-2-3-1 midfield of Pogba and Nemanja Matic, stifling United’s build-up and targeting their relative immobility for a modern Premier League midfield. Crystal Palace, Brighton, and Spurs combined for 11 goals against United in the early matches.
Solskjaer’s solution, which led to a 4-1 win over Newcastle, saw Pogba played off the bench, adding an extra dimension to United’s attack and creating three goals in the final 22 minutes as United’s attack matched the shots that it generated in the opening 68 (Understat).
Similarly, Pogba was introduced at 1-1 against PSG to play as a central midfielder, offset to the left-flank. The role allowed him to do what he does best- progress the ball from the centre of the pitch with two solid defensive-minded players behind him which saw PSG struggle to cope with another figure in the central area of the park, let alone such a talented one.
Given Pogba’s relative defensive tameness and desire to sometimes vacate his position in search of the ball, he clearly is not well-suited to playing alongside a sole deep-lying midfielder, with Solskjaer opting to play McTominay in the last two matches. He struggled in the same position under Jose Mourinho, even if his brilliance on the ball often papered over the cracks.
Pogba needs a free role where he can both progress the ball and be highly involved in United’s creative efforts, something that none of the three central midfielders in United’s 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 currently do. Clearly, though, United suffer creatively when Pogba isn’t on the pitch, as evidenced by the fact that Solskjaer’s side have needed him to get over the line late in the last two matches despite playing well throughout.
Solutions are needed to integrate him into the side. Bringing him off the bench- one potential solution- can work in matches where United are unlikely to win anyways, such as today’s, giving the Red Devils a chance of snatching the match late.
But if United want to win matches over 90 minutes and take teams to the sword, Pogba needs to be starting, and his positioning against PSG alludes to playing him in the left-channel, whether as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, or in a 4-4-2 diamond.
United lack creative and progressive wingers anyways and having a fourth central midfielder clearly allows United to create chances while maintaining the platform that executed the Premier Leauge’s third-best defensive unit last season. Pogba, Fernandes, Martial, and Rashford are United’s most creative players and will generate opportunities even in matches where Solskjaer’s side are fighting for survival.
We have learned a lot about United’s midfield in 2020. Bruno Fernandes’ signing unleashed the side, and Fred’s aggressive, busy, and progressive style makes him nearly undroppable in the biggest games. Figuring out how Pogba fits into the equation, though, was always going to be a massive defining factor in Solskjaer’s success given how important he clearly is and will continue to be for United.
Should Pogba continue to emerge from the bench in matches and create goals, United may very well win more matches than they lose. Should Solskjaer find him a place in the side without disrupting the organisation that he has stumbled upon, United will be exponentially closer towards more spectacular performances like the display that dispatched Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night.