He has been labelled a waste of money with every under-par performance this season, pilloried almost every time he has taken to social media and had his influence in Manchester United’s side questioned at almost every turn. But the 0-0 draw with Manchester City on Thursday underlined exactly what Paul Pogba adds to Jose Mourinho’s side. The major problem was that he wasn’t playing.
In a team lacking the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones it was noticeable just how much Pogba’s absence in particular stuck out like a sore thumb. On a night when United seemed set up for a counter-attacking game, the lack of their £89.5 million man was the biggest difference between a successful night at the office and a frustrating evening left hanging on with 10 men.
Once the game settled down it was City who had the vast majority of the possession and territory while United struggled to get any kind of a foothold. It was clearly their plan to absorb the pressure and then release their pacey front three on the break, but they were summarily unable to get Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial into decent space often enough to justify the approach.
Despite Rashford and Martial both easily having the legs on Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany, United often chose the aerial route in their attempts to break on the hosts which only made life easier for the City centre-halves. It just meant that the ball kept coming back and United were put under the cosh more than ever.
What they needed in order to make the practice worthwhile was to make the most of the few chances they got, but when the opportunities came their way they failed to capitalise. Henrikh Mkhitaryan drove a shot too close to Claudio Bravo after the Chilean goalkeeper had unwisely palmed the ball in his direction from a floating cross, then Ander Herrera somehow missed the target when rising unmarked at the back post from a Rashford cross.
In truth Mourinho’s attempted masterplan was reliant upon somebody having the drive and confidence on the ball to make full use of the space that was left behind when City’s attacks broke down. Yet without Pogba available they simply looked short-handed.
Just as the sending-off of Ander Herrera at Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-final left the 10 men hoping for a clear chance in the final third rather than expecting one, here United were playing as if a man light long before Marouane Fellaini’s moment of madness six minutes from time.
The Belgian’s act of ridiculous petulance in head-butting Sergio Aguero capped a night in which he had defended stoutly in front of the back four but been unable to provide anything in the way of verve or substance when United needed it in possession.
But then that has never been his game, and that is why players like Pogba are worth their weight in gold. He might have been criticised for his inability to set the tone in games during his first season back at Old Trafford, but the Frenchman’s qualities were more evident in their absence tonight than in almost any other moment this term.