Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, certainly chief among the perils of a rich and successful history.
Nothing is permanent and in football success is cyclical. The greatest empires struggle to grasp the concept though, developing a false sense of entitlement, and few were greater than the one Sir Alex Ferguson built at Manchester United.
For some, their ongoing fall from grace spanning seven long years was inconceivable. Glory days of the past haunt the current Old Trafford contingent because everything is measured against what was. But United aren’t what they were and these players pale in comparison to their predecessors.
That’s something Paul Pogba has struggled with. His boundless talent comes at a price – no, not the record sum of £89 million paid to Juventus for him just four years after he was lured away for free as a teenager, though that does complicate matters.
His tremendous ability comes with massive expectations. He’s burdened with being the catalyst of United’s great revival and leading them out of the doldrums. As a World Cup winner and one of the best midfielders in the game, he’s expected to take a game by the scruff of its neck.
Perhaps that stems from comparisons to compatriot Eric Cantona who was the catalyst for United’s new and successful era 27 years ago.
Pogba is certainly capable, he proved as much in last season’s Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium when he scored a brace in a terrific second-half display which saw the visitors recover from 2-0 down at the break to claim a thrilling 3-2 win.
"We let the manager speak, he told us the truth" @paulpogba reflects on how the #MUFC dressing room reacted to Sunday's humiliation at Everton.— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) April 23, 2019
Watch full exclusive interview with Pogba: https://t.co/QUgYqCU8ny pic.twitter.com/H90m6kNhsh
But does he have the temperament to perform such heroics repeatedly? The evidence suggests not.
He could do little to steady the ship at Goodison Park. In such an insipid team performance however, Pogba was far from the worst player. Some of his stats during the 4-0 humiliation at Everton were even impressive as he created four big chances.
In fact, there was one moment in the first half while trailing 1-0 when Pogba produced the kind of quality that didn’t belong in that United display.
The Frenchman dropped deep in a hurry, yelling frantically to receive possession while his side tentatively inched the ball away from their own area. Chris Smalling eventually obliged and in one swift motion, Pogba turned with the ball and pinged a long-raking pass forward which was inch-perfect for Marcus Rashford.
He created a big chance out of nothing and a world class striker or certainly one further along in his development would’ve drawn the visitors level and changed the game.
Think Ryan Giggs’ pass for Robin van Persie to score a stoppage-time equaliser during an FA Cup third round fixture at Upton Park back in 2013.
The Dutchman’s sublime first touch cushioned the ball into his path perfectly before slotting his finish into the far corner with his weaker foot – ice running through his veins.
In contrast, Rashford showed little faith in his ability to bring the ball under his spell with blue shirts bearing down on him. A great opportunity turned into a half-chance the moment he decided to let it bounce. He didn’t have the confidence to strike it with his left foot either, awkwardly prodding it over the bar with his right.
It’s a harsh criticism to make of a budding 21-year-old who may one day scale the heights of world football but such are the margins at the highest level.
And that brings us to what hinders Pogba the most, more than tactics or the position in which he is deployed. He doesn’t have the support cast around him to flourish. Love him or hate him, there’s no escaping the fact that he’s the most talented player at Old Trafford right now.
What he is not is the strong character his team-mates look to when the chips are down. He is not Eric Cantona and United must accept that. Maybe he doesn’t have to be Cantona though, maybe he’s Dimitar Berbatov instead and simply needs fighters around him.
Pogba requires the likes of Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-Sung, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic. He needs fierce competitors around him to run and fight so he can thrive and create.
If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is serious about wanting to build a team around Pogba, then those are the kind of players and characters he should be pursuing to do so.
The frustrations over the mercurial Frenchman from United fans is understandable but they’re also misguided. Demands of him to be something he’s not are unreasonable and his potential departure in the summer would only be to the detriment of a team sorely lacking star quality as it is.
Stop comparing him to Cantona or players of that ilk. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
The Red Devils are reeling from their spineless 4-0 thrashing at Everton on the weekend and will be keen to put in a much better performance in order to derail their neighbours’ title bid – even if it might well hand fierce rivals Liverpool the initiative in the battle for Premier League glory.
If City, meanwhile, can earn victory, it will put them in the driving seat to retain their trophy.
Here are some key tactical issues for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to consider:
LEGS IN MIDFIELD
Fitness and energy are key components this United side lack under Solskjaer. The Norwegian boss has bemoaned the fact his reign has been bereft of the benefits of a pre-season schedule.
With a need to ring the changes and reinstall pride, Solskjaer would be wise to reintroduce a fit-again Ander Herrera. For all the furore over his future, the Spaniard’s bite and drive has been sorely missing in recent weeks.
Nemanja Matic was well below par on Sunday and United need pace and athleticism in the engine room against a marauding City. Herrera, in a midfield three alongside Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, would provide United with a junkyard dog figure they sorely need.
His energy and sniping can help overwhelm Fernandinho and cut out City’s creativity when defending. And when United have the ball, he can then shift across to help cover Pogba and allow the Frenchman to create.
ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Solskjaer could decide to fight fire with fire at Old Trafford and that could mean springing a few shocks – with the reintroduction of Alexis Sanchez from the cold, or even a start for Mason Greenwood.
Sanchez looked bright in a cameo at the Camp Nou and could come in for either Anthony Martial or Romelu Lukaku, who are likely to be casualties from Sunday.
Solskjaer has talked of wanting United players to show their passion and that could lead to someone like local lad Greenwood getting the nod, while Jesse Lingard is also sure to start.
Say what you want about Lingard’s ability, he’s the sort of player who can drag players out of position and poke holes in a City defence which has looked ramshackle recently.
In playing the likes of Greenwood, Lingard, Sanchez and Diogo Dalot, Solskjaer would be mirroring City’s use of small, sharp and incisive players who, while lacking in stature, have the surgical skills to pierce City’s softness.
With Manchester United set for a second straight season without silverware, all signs point to a big summer overhaul from newly-installed manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The Norwegian has spoken of the investment it will take to rebuild the squad so that it bridges the gap to clubs like Barcelona, who dumped United out of the Champions League this week.
While part of the rebuild will involve bringing in new players, Solskjaer and the rest of the club hierarchy will need to make cold, ruthless decisions about the ones already at the club.
Here, we look at how likely the current defenders at United are to remain at Old Trafford beyond this summer. Check out our analysis of the club’s goalkeepers, midfielders, and strikers as well.
Victor Lindelof has emerged as United’s best defender this season, testament to his ability and determination. But is he ready to be the anchor of a side chasing major honours?
The club are all but certain to bring in at least one centre-back this summer, though perhaps the better option would be to bring in two top-class centre-backs who could help Lindelof develop without the pressure of having to perform at his best every single week as he continues to learn his trade. But the Swede is definitely not leaving the club, and may even be one of the back-up captains next season.
Likelihood of staying: 10/10
Like Lindelof, Luke Shaw has used this season to finally come good on his potential. At 23 he’s only going to improve, and if he continues on the trajectory he’s established this season he could end up being one of the best left-backs in England, if not Europe.
Of course, he still has to get better, and maybe United might bring an experienced player to help him do that. But it’s not a priority during a summer where several other positions need upgrades. And Shaw’s definitely not going anywhere.
Likelihood of staying: 10/10
The hope at United was that Eric Bailly and Lindelof would develop into the new Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand partnership, Bailly the new-age warrior defender and Lindelof the ice-cool reincarnation of Ferdinand.
But the Ivorian’s rashness and occasional deer-in-the-headlights defending have seen him fall way after a promising start to his United career. He’s not likely to leave, but he could do with learning from better defenders while he grows into his own, and that’s probably what’s going to happen as United target a new centre-back. Bailly’s personal goal next season should be to make sure he gets ahead of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the pecking order.
Likelihood of staying: 8/10
Happy 25th Birthday to our loveable centre-back, Eric Bailly.— RedReveal (@RedReveal) April 11, 2019
🏆 Africa Cup Of Nations (2015)
🏆 Community Shield (2016)
🏆 EFL Cup (2016/17)
🏆 Europa League (2016/17)
🏅 CAF Team of the Year (2016, 2017, 2018)
🏅 Europa League Squad of the season (2016/17) #MUFC pic.twitter.com/vLhk8yxwTK
Diogo Dalot has been at the club for less than a year, and though Solskjaer has been reluctant to trust the young Portugal star as a defender, he’s put in a few promising displays as a makeshift winger. Such is the way of the modern game, Dalot is a fine attacking full-back but the defensive side of his game does need some work.
United are almost certain to buy a new right-back this summer, with 33-year-old converted winger Ashley Young doing an admirable, if reluctant and unreliable job for the last few years, but Dalot will be allowed to develop at the club. Any new recruit will automatically spur the 20-year-old on to improve, but won’t push Dalot out of the club just yet.
Likelihood of staying: 10/10
Diogo Dalot was a central figure in Man Utd reaching the Champions League quarter-finals...— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 16, 2019
But was it a penalty?
"Of course. I told the referee!" 😂
20 years old and improving with every game 👊
🎙 @DesKellyBTS #NoFilterUCL pic.twitter.com/CR41npIZno
Usually, an inconsistent, injury-prone player who has yet to truly prove himself after seven seasons at the same club is the sort of player a manager would cut their losses on. But United handed Phil Jones a new contract in January, so are they really going to sell him in the summer?
They are set to have a logjam at centre-back. All signs point to United recruiting at least one player at the position, one who would walk into the starting XI. Lindelof has been the club’s most consistent defender this season and Bailly offers more upside than Jones at this point.
Axel Tuanzebe, a player of huge potential, will return from a season-long loan having proved his quality at Aston Villa. Even with his new contract, the Englishman is set to be a bit-part player unless he can finally sort out long-standing issues over fitness and form that have seen Jones fall well short of the now-infamous standard Sir Alex Ferguson set for him when he said the defender could become the greatest player in United’s history.
Likelihood of staying: 8/10
Leo Messi just ended Phil Jones career. Filthy 🔥 pic.twitter.com/CjvNuQKkhv— True Soccer Life ⚽️ (@TrueSccrLife) April 16, 2019
Like Jones, Smalling has his detractors in the game, but he has been the Red Devils’ most consistent option in the centre for a numbers of seasons. And while he is vilified by the media and United fans alike, he rarely lets United down.
Whether Ferguson expected much when buying him from Fulham in 2010 – having joined the Cottagers from non-league Maidstone – Smalling’s biggest crime seems to be the simple fact that he isn’t and won’t ever be an elite central defender. But that’s hardly his fault and, considering he’s at one of the biggest clubs in the world during their lowest ebb in three decades, he deserves far more credit than he receives.
There are days when he looks like the best defender at the club, and others when he still looks like a fish out of water. Though he’s improved in many regards, he still tends to look uncomfortable on the ball at times and isn’t the most accomplished passer, traits that have become prerequisites for the modern defender.
But again like Jones, Smalling was given a new contract in January. That makes it unlikelier that the Englishman will leave this summer. But both defenders are set to fall down the pecking order, and though they’ll be around next season don’t be surprised if it ends up being their last at the club.
Likelihood of staying: 9/10
Ashley Young’s conversion from winger to full-back has finally hit the rocks as it was seemingly always destined for. There was a good three-year spell where the Englishman’s performance in defence was not just serviceable but at times, full of genuine quality.
But over the last month his form has gone – a player into his mid-30s should not be in a position of having played 40+ games for one of the biggest teams in world football, and while anyone can recover from a dip, for a player who turns 34 this summer this latest spell seems terminal.
Shaw is entrenched as the first-choice left-back and right-back is one of the positions where United are constantly being linked with several transfer targets, so it’s unlikely that Young is a starting XI player next season.
On the other hand, he was handed a new contract in January and has been installed as de facto club captain. He’s likely not going anywhere, but his role next season should be greatly reduced to being a back-up and senior figure.
Likelihood of staying: 9/10
This season, Ashley Young has lost possession a total of 756 times. This averages out to 21.9 times per 90 minutes – more than any other Manchester United player. pic.twitter.com/b1ev1fSD8o— UtdArena. (@utdarena) April 17, 2019
It’s never worked out for Matteo Darmian at United, which is a shame. He arrived as a promising defensive prospect and is set to leave, possibly for one of Italy’s biggest clubs with Inter Milan, having rarely gotten a consistent run in the side and shifted around from right-back, his natural position, to left-back to centre-back in a back three. Not the best circumstances for his development, and yet he’s been a model professional throughout.
He was linked with an exit last summer and though no move materialised, it almost certainly will this summer. A return home is the best outcome for all parties.
Likelihood of staying: 0/10
Matteo Darmian must be watching Ashley Young’s performances and wondering what he has to do to get an opportunity. People are quick to forget the start Darmian made to his United career and that masterclass in the Europa League final. He’s not had a fair chance to prove himself.— The Man Utd Way (@TheManUtdWay) April 11, 2019
Rojo is another defender who has struggled to stay fit and find consistency while at United, like Jones and Smalling. His rashness makes him a liability, and though his versatility – he can play at left-back as well as centre-back – is a positive trait, it might not be enough to keep him at the club beyond this season.
According to the Argentine, Solskjaer was in his ear constantly during his recovery from a long-standing injury, and he has slowly been reintegrated into the first team. But given the number of centre-backs already at the club and at least one new player joining, it’s hard to see how Rojo has a future at United beyond the end of this season. At best he could be kept on as a back-up left-back, but an exit is more likely.
Likelihood of staying: 3/10
Marcos Rojo. Remember him?— The Peoples Person (@PeoplesPerson_) April 13, 2019
The defender makes only his second PL start of the season vs West Ham. pic.twitter.com/1aNtoSWVeg