It was a question Jose Mourinho would normally sidestep with typical media mastery: Is Paul Pogba irreplaceable for Manchester United?
In the past, the Portuguese would shift the focus onto the team rather than the individual, ensuring that no one player considers themselves too important. To publicly describe one player as more crucial than the rest could be a sign of weakness – every disciple is equal in the Church of Mourinho.
“No-one is irreplaceable,” he said in July 2015, discussing Chelsea’s dominant triptych of Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard. “Difficult to replace, yes. To replace one by one, it is also very difficult. Very difficult. But to replace by good time, a good structure, a good dynamic, good options, it is possible.”
Yet not even Mourinho could overlook the drastic effect a returning Pogba had on an effervescent United against Newcastle on Saturday. The hosts fell behind after a quarter of an hour but a goal and an assist each from their chief orchestrator helped seal a comfortable three points.
“He affects our football,” was as diplomatic a response as Mourinho could justify after the game. “We all know, myself and the fellow players, that certain players influence the levels of the team. With him we have much more creation. I am so happy.”
The point was not necessarily that Pogba creates all the chances – that he is the artist while his teammates carry the canvas and palette. The Frenchman laid on as many goalscoring opportunities as Victor Lindelof against Newcastle (2), and three players had more touches.
Rather, the point was that Pogba improves those around him. When he plays, United play better. Excluding the game against Basel in September when the midfielder suffered an early injury, United create 14.4 chances per game when Pogba starts, compared to 8.9 without him. When Pogba starts, an average of 8.2 players per game create those chances, compared to 5.3 when he is sidelined. Against Newcastle, United created more chances (13) in any game since they beat Crystal Palace 4-0 in September (16). United have not created fewer than 12 chances when Pogba starts, but only created 12 chances or more in three games out of 13 without him.
In the three games #mufc have won from losing positions under Mourinho Pogba has scored the winner, created the winner and scored and assisted in the third game.
— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) November 18, 2017
Pogba, as Mourinho suggested, “affects” United’s football. He is the cog around which the manager has built this machine, and removing him for the last two months had an obvious impact. Ander Herrera is a capable midfielder but not good enough to fulfill such a crucial role, while Nemanja Matic looks visibly more composed when paired with his perfect partner.
That Pogba was so dominant in his first match in 67 days is remarkable. While most players are eased back into first-team action after an injury, the 24-year-old took his first start in two months in stride like a pass from defence. He has now scored or assisted a Premier League goal every 71.6 minutes this season – only four players (Crouch, Aguero, Martial and Sane) can better that record. Or, to put that into context, only four forwards can better that record.
Even when Pogba was substituted after 70 minutes, he filled the role of cheerleader, standing by the corner flag to celebrate Romelu Lukaku’s first goal in eight games before strolling down the tunnel, a successful day’s work to his name. United have now lost one Premier League game in which their most expensive player has started since October 2016.
On a day where United won after changing their formation and swapping Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Lindelof, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, it was impossible not to view their transformation solely through the return of Pogba for Herrera. David de Gea would have a fair argument, but even Mourinho himself could not claim Pogba is not their most irreplaceable player.
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