There is a lot wrong at Manchester United right now. That much is obvious when you’ve lost six of eight and blame is naturally going to be thrown around in various problems. Most of the blame is rightfully going to the board – they’re clueless – but there will always be some fans who place the blame on Paul Pogba for underperforming, or accusing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for being tactically lost.
The fact that the board is lost raises serious questions for the long term future of the club, but the more immediate struggles, as in losing six of eight, has a much simpler explanation. In fact, this explanation directly ties in to the board’s incompetence, Pogba’s underperformance, and Ole’s overchanging tactics.
United are missing Ander Herrera.
It’s not surprising Herrera’s absence has been overlooked. Herrera’s time at United has been essentially defined by being overlooked. He struggled to win over the trust of Louis van Gaal when he first arrived, and then had to do the same with Jose .Mourinho.
Herrera was so good in Mourinho’s first season that he won United’s Player of the Year award, the only outfield player to do so since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Mourinho rewarded him by replacing him with Nemanaja Matic as soon as he could. This year Herrera started just 10 games under Mourinho, one of which was at center back.
Herrera’s importance to the team is hard to quantify. Yes he has more tackles and interceptions than any regular player (sorry Matteo Darmian) but what he brings goes way beyond his own numbers.
Since Solskjaer took over, Herrera has done all the dirty work in midfield. He’s an engine that runs non-stop. He man-marks the other team’s best player. He breaks up counter attacks before they happen. He gets in people’s way to allow Nemanja Matic to win the ball back. He also leads the team in xG buildup, making him vital to starting United’s attack back up!
Herrera’s importance doesn’t show up so much in his own numbers but in the numbers of his teammates. In 12 games with Herrera Marcus Rashford has eight goals in three assists. Without Herrera he has one goal (a penalty) and one assist in nine games. Both of those came against PSG.
But Herrera’s absence hasn’t effected anyone as much as Paul Pogba. The 14 games they’ve played together Pogba has eight goals and six assists. His best form of the season! But without Herrera Pogba has mustered just one assist and three goals, all of which have come from the spot.
How does such a drop in form happen? Because Herrera’s absence has caused a change in Pogba’s responsibility.
United don’t have a natural replacement for Herrera. Therefore, whether it’s Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira, or Fred United’s midfield is significantly weaker. That’s caused Pogba to drop a lot deeper and take on a lot more defensive responsibilities.
That creates a ripple effect for United. For starters, it takes away from what Pogba does best, which is running with the ball and playing near the opponents box. Without Herrera, Pogba doesn’t have the freedom to run into the box. Pogba is very dangerous in the air, but if he can’t run into the box United can’t utilize that talent.
When Herrera is playing the plan is simple. United’s defenders, or Herrera and Matic, win the ball and get it to Pogba. Pogba serves as the outlet to launch the counter attack. Without Herrera, Pogba is the one dropping deeper, but when he wins the ball back, there is no outlet. With no outlet, United can’t launch their counter attack.
Without the counter attack, United become very one dimensional and very unbalanced. The only creativity in their attack comes from Pogba, who has to play in a restrained role.
To make matters worse, opposing teams know this. Week after week teams are man marking and double teaming Pogba. They isolate him and contain him to the left touchline. They know if they take him out of the game they’ve cut the head off of United’s attack. Pereira, Matic, Fred, and McTominay simply aren’t good enough to alleviate the pressure from Pogba (and the poor form of Rashford and Martial hasn’t helped).
You know who else knows this? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Solskjaer constantly changing up his formation isn’t because he’s overthinking things. It’s because he’s trying to free up Pogba. He knows that if Pogba goes United goes. Against Everton he pushed Pogba into a very high role in an attempt to get him space. It didn’t work because United were left with a two man midfield of Matic and Fred, which was predictably completely overrun.
United’s reliance on Herrera can easily be summed up with their record with and without him. Since Solskjaer took over, United have 11 wins, one draw, and two losses in the 14 games in all competitions that Herrera has featured in. That’s a 78.6% win rate. In those 14 games they’ve outscored their opponents 29-10.
Without Herrera it’s been completely the opposite. In 10 games without Herrera (but with Pogba) they’ve won just three times, drawn once, and have lost six times (a 30% win rate). Without Herrera they’ve been outscored 21-14. Suddenly David de Gea’s drop in form is more explainable.
Despite Herrera’s importance to the team, the board are still balking on giving Herrera a new contract. It’s insane. The team literally can’t win without him and the board are daring him to walk away.
Herrera has given a verbal commitment to PSG, but hasn’t signed anything. He wants to stay at United. Ole wants him to stay. It’s the board, Ed Woodward, that are trying to hard ball him.
If this was the only incompetent thing that was going on that’d be fine. Unfortunately it’s just one example of many.