While Paul Pogba did his best to refocus the minds of Manchester United fans at Old Trafford, much of the attention was undoubtedly elsewhere, with the news that Manchester City had indeed pulled out of the race for Alexis Sanchez breaking around about the time that Anthony Martial doubled the Red Devils’ first-half lead against Stoke.
Once they had their early opener, it was generally a routine victory for United against a bottom-three dweller waiting to start work for their new manager on Tuesday morning. Pogba pulled the strings, providing first-half assists for Antonio Valencia and Martial, though both had plenty to do upon receiving the ball from United’s talisman.
Sanchez, wherever he might fit into United’s attack, will surely love playing with Pogba, and vice versa. Despite missing a large chunk of the season, Pogba has a joint-Premier League high of nine assists to his name – the same number of Kevin De Bruyne, though the United star has played 10 games fewer.
Those lay-offs, first through injury then a three-game suspension, will stand Pogba in good stead to build on that contribution throughout the remainder of the season. But his midfield partner, Nemanja Matic, is in desperate need of a break himself.
Against Stoke, Matic was again left to do most of Pogba’s dirty work. Not that there was an abdication of defensive duties from the star attraction; Matic could probably anchor a United midfield against the likes of Stoke in his sleep, while Pogba’s influence is far better used in the attacking third.
How to get the most out of Pogba was one of Mourinho’s toughest conundrums until recently. The £89million man regularly showed glimpses of his brilliance but finding the balance between giving him the freedom to perform while also satisfying the manager’s defensive urges seemed too often to have a stifling effect. Mourinho’s answer, it seems, is to give Matic more responsibility.
The summer recruit can handle it, especially during the more routine tests like Stoke offered on Monday night. But the added workload comes at a cost: Matic has certainly looked more jaded in recent weeks.
During the last game of November at Watford, Matic picked up a muscular injury, with fatigue possibly a factor. He seemed certain to miss the trip to Arsenal a few days later but, somehow, Mourinho wheeled out his key man at the Emirates, where again he was pivotal. Matic has played every minute in the Premier League since, but he certainly appears to be playing more conservatively.
That could be because Pogba’s freedom forces him, but tiredness must be playing a part. If it isn’t already, it will surely soon. Matic has started more games and played more minutes than any other outfield team-mate. Romelu Lukaku is closest having played 134 minutes fewer, and much was made by Mourinho of the centre-forward’s fatigue during the early part of the winter. Matic has not been afforded similar sympathy but his workload must be having an effect.
Matic admitted as much last month: “It’s hard because every three days you have a game, but the most important things are motivation and desire. We know that we are tired – but we also know that the other teams also play every few days.”
Unfortunately, Mourinho cannot spare Matic, even against the likes of Stoke. Before kick-off, there were rumours that Michael Carrick was to be brought in for his first start of the season, with Matic to be given another breather after a rare night off in the FA Cup against Derby last week. Not so, as it transpired. Carrick was the 19th man in the match-day squad, while last year’s player of the season was kept in reserve.
Ander Herrera claimed that accolade in May on the basis of his energy and industry in the centre of midfield, often alongside Pogba. But Matic’s performances have been a level above what Herrera can give. Whatever qualities the Spaniard possesses, he cannot offer the impeccable composure, intelligence and discipline of Matic, or provide the same stage for Pogba. That is no great slight against Herrera; very few can match the Serbian.
When Scott McTominay plays, Mourinho likes him next to Matic rather than in his place, while Marouane Fellaini has many similar physical traits, but not the technical and psychological ones.
Mourinho, nor Pogba, simply cannot do without Matic but such indispensability takes its toll. While Sanchez is a player United felt they could not afford to pass up, the Red Devils should focus just as hard on recruiting – either now or in the summer – a player who is trustworthy enough to stand in for Matic. Somebody has to provide a stage for the likes of Pogba and Sanchez to shine.