It has been far from plain sailing for Paul Pogba since he returned to Manchester United in 2016 in what was at the time a world record transfer deal.
The £89.5 million midfielder failed to convince in his first season as Jose Mourinho struggled to get the best out of him in either a deep central role or the number 10 position behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And in term two a couple of spells of vintage Pogba were nowhere near prolonged enough to change the minds of doubters.
So in 2018-19 it is vital that Mourinho and United get the best out of the Frenchman, but in the £52.5m signing of Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk this week they have made a huge first step to making that happen.
The Brazilian midfielder arrives at Old Trafford as the man to potentially provide the ideal counter-balance to Pogba in United’s midfield triumvirate. With Mourinho gradually phasing in his seemingly preferred formation of a 4-3-3 over the past few months, it is clear that the plan is to have Fred add the solidity and dynamism to the right which has been lacking thus far.
Pogba’s best football to date came when part of an all-action midfield three for Juventus between 2012 and 2015. His buccaneering approach was anchored by Andrea Pirlo’s direction at the base of the engine room but was more importantly complemented to perfection by the boundless energy of Arturo Vidal to the right of the triangle. The Chilean’s presence gave opponents another thing to think about when choosing how best to quell Pogba’s threat.
Whenever United have attempted to lay such a platform for Pogba they have found the cogs not to be working in such harmony. While Nemanja Matic’s dictation of proceedings has given them a new dimension, the right-sided role has simply not been claimed. Ander Herrera has too often dropped too deep, Scott McTominay has been similarly unadventurous and Marouane Fellaini provided none of the traditional attributes a United midfielder should pose.
The lack of consistent threat from the right has made United more predictable and easier to contain. Pogba in particular has been most affected in an attacking sense since he has largely been United’s only adventurous presence coming from the channels into the box.
But Fred could well be the perfect foil for Pogba. What United have needed is a player who is comfortable on the ball but also mobile enough to add an attacking element to the play. They need that Vidal-like element to occupy the minds of adversaries in order to give Pogba further freedom. And that is was Fred is expected to provide.
The Brazilian will add far greater energy than United have been getting out of Matic since his arrival. And while Herrera has done exactly that at times, Fred can also be relied upon to spot a pass over long and short distances even in congested areas of the field. He might not have the exact attributes of a Vidal but he does add a new element to United’s field from which Pogba surely can’t fail to benefit.
Pogba has spoken recently of the mental difficulties that have dogged him since he returned to Old Trafford and insisted that whatever trouble he has had winning a place in Mourinho’s heart has helped him grow.
“One is not forced to go to the restaurant together. I had some problems… it’s mental,” he explained. “He put me on the bench, I answered on the pitch, I give my maximum every time. It made me grow in leadership.
“I had the captain’s armband with Mourinho, and it was the first time in a club. It is important to me.”
The captaincy is up for grabs again this summer after the retirement of club skipper Michael Carrick, but Pogba may not be in the running for the armband given his sophomore troubles and his strained relationship with the manager. But the arrival of Fred gives him the optimum chance to become a real leader of this Manchester United side whether he has the ‘C’ next to his name or not.
This squad is gradually becoming more and more attuned to what a fit and flying Paul Pogba needs. If he doesn’t excel in a red shirt in 2018-19 he might never do so.