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Manchester United

Manchester United need a Paul Pogba alternative to challenge Manchester City for the title

Stephen Fox

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Despite a brilliant start to the season, Manchester United’s performances have lessened over the past month with the absence of midfielder Paul Pogba. It is evident that the club desperately need an alternative to the French superstar.

Manchester United started off the season in fine form collecting several wins by large 4-0 margins, playing the best football the club has played since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

The additions of Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku have worked well, starting off fantastically for the club, but at the heart of United’s short spell of dominance was Paul Pogba.

The Frenchman came under flack last season by many for what was perceived as poor performances, but what was noticed by some was that, when Pogba didn’t play, United’s performances in games declined.

The Red Devils simply couldn’t dominate the midfield. They didn’t have anybody else in the squad aside from Michael Carrick, who could control the game by recycling possession and driving forward with the ball. This was most evident in the Manchester derby, during which United’s were disjointed and struggled to string passing moves together.

This is similar, again, to what is happening at United right now and it is a bigger factor into United’s down turn in form. With Pogba out injured, United are using a midfield duo of Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Two good, but very similar players.

Both Matic and Herrera are defensive minded, neither great technically on the ball and neither capable of doing what Pogba does on the pitch. Likewise, Pogba could not carry out the same role as that of the Serbian or Spaniard.

Pogba is not defensively good. He lacks the positional discipline to do their jobs. Neither of these players are functionally capable of replacing the others in their team. However, since Paul Pogba has come down with an injury, United have deployed Ander Herrera in the ‘creative’ role.

The playmaker, the beating heart of the team. Herrera has been tasked with being the player to link the midfield with the attack, to provide the crucial service to the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku; to link up play with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata.

The issue here is that Herrera isn’t capable of playing in this role, he doesn’t have the flair of Pogba, nor does he have the technical ability to do it. It is the biggest factor behind Herrera’s disappointing form this season. He is not capable of performing to such a role.

Essentially, United have nobody capable of filling that role whenever Pogba is out with an injury, or when he needs to be rested to preserve energy and fitness. Matic and Herrera is a naturally defensive pairing. This can work if a player like Marouane Fellaini is available as you can by-pass the midfield by playing a long balls up to the Belgian.

However, Fellaini, despite his form, can be found out given his rather static movement off the ball and United desperately need to find a player who can do what Pogba does when he is on the pitch. They need a silky, creative, flair midfielder who can dictate the tempo, control the midfield and create the number of chances that the Frenchman does.

This could be where United being linked with Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, as reported by the Mirror, becomes interesting.

If the Old Trafford outfit were to buy the German, they could opt to switch from the usual 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 with Ozil being positioned in midfield with Herrera and Matic. This would give him the defensive pairing that would allow the complete freedom to do what he does best.

The Arsenal midfielder is comfortable on the ball. He is one of the best players in the Premier League at creating chances and, with the attacking options of Lukaku, Rashford and Martial, he could certainly perform much better than he does currently at the Emirates Stadium.

While he isn’t the type of player who can dictate the tempo of the game or control the midfield, he does have all the technical abilities to be able to do so, it would merely take a slight adjustment for him to be able to perform to this role.

Meanwhile, another viable option would be Andreas Perreria, who is already a Manchester United player, currently on loan at Valencia.

Perreria has been impressive out on loan for the past two seasons. He is highly creative and processes great technical abilities for a player of his age. However, much like Ozil, he is a player who excels at playing in the number 10 role, but he is still young enough to be retrained into the role of an advanced central midfielder.

Regardless who United bring in, if they do, this isn’t anything new. For several years before Pogba returned to Old Trafford, it was apparent that United played significantly better if Michael Carrick was on the pitch. He was able to control the midfield and dictate the tempo of the game.

Throughout last season, there was plenty of talk regarding United’s need to replace the veteran Englishman with somebody younger and capable of playing more games. It is interesting, and perhaps even naive, that United didn’t opt to go for anybody to offer as an alternative for Pogba, for when he was ruled out with an injury.

Either way, it is hard to see United’s performances going back to how they were at the start of the season, until the France international returns. They are sorely missing his contribution and his driving presence.

Although United should be able to keep winning and keep within touching distance of Manchester City in the title race. They desperately need Pogba to return and it should become apparent to Jose Mourinho that he will need a proper alternative for him in midfield if he wants to compete with Pep Guardiola’s side for the league title.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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English Premier League

Newcastle United 1-0 Manchester United: Three talking points from St James’ Park

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Newcastle United delivered one of their best performances of the season as they overcame Manchester United in a hard-fought victory. Due to Huddersfield Town’s win earlier in the day, the Magpies started the match in the relegation zone and only three points would see them climb out of the bottom three. That is exactly what they got as they ran themselves into the ground to beat a more talented top-six team. This was the club’s first win at St James’ Park since October and it came at a crucial time. Here are three talking points from the game:

Martin Dubravka shone on his debut

Although Newcastle didn’t do a great deal of business during the January transfer window, they did make three loan signings and one of them was the star of the show on Sunday. Martin Dubravka came in for his Magpies’ debut as he replaced Karl Darlow in goal and it would have been easy to be daunted by the occasion, but the Slovakian international took it in his stride. He was near faultless, as he made a number of crucial saves and marshalled his box effectively.

Benitez has wanted a new goalkeeper since he took over at the club, but last summer’s signing Matz Sels didn’t adjust to English football and that left the manager with the problem that he inherited. Karl Darlow and Rob Elliot have shared the duties of being number one, but neither have stood out as being Premier League quality.

The addition of Dubravka supplied instant benefits, as he was quick to claim crosses and had an excellent control of his area. In the first-half, he made a crucial stop to deny Anthony Martial. With just minutes left, he made an incredible reaction save to make sure Newcastle kept hold of the clean sheet. It was a debut to remember and on this evidence, the Slovakian will be the number one at St James’ Park for the rest of the campaign.

Manchester United lacked options to change the game

There were some strange decisions made by Jose Mourinho as he tried to change the game in his side’s favour in the second half. He brought on Michael Carrick and Juan Mata for Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. This change arguably made them more predictable in attack, as the two players coming on had less pace and dynamism. The third change saw youngster Scott McTominay come on for Nemanja Matic. It was a tough ask for the inexperienced midfielder to get Manchester United back in to the game.

Although the changes arguably made the team worse, there were few options available to Mourinho, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford were all missing from the squad. Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw were on the bench, but neither are attacking players and that is what Manchester United needed.

Paul Pogba looked jaded and lacking fitness for the entire ninety minutes, but he was forced to start due to the lack of other options on Sunday. It is no excuse, but the inability to change the game did leave Mourinho short, especially after falling behind.

Newcastle won the midfield battle

As alluded to above, Paul Poba didn’t look fully fit and Newcastle United took full advantage of that as they won the midfield battle. Mohamed Diame was a figure of frustration for the first-half of the season, but he has improved significantly in recent weeks. He and Jonjo Shelvey were both superb, as they fought hard and distributed the ball well when they had the opportunity to. Between them, they made 13 ball recoveries and five key passes. They fully committed to the cause and played a vital role in the team’s victory.

The renaissance of Diame has been incredible to watch as he is now performing to the level that Rafa Benitez would have expected when he was signed last summer. However, the improvement of Shelvey could prove to be even more important in the long run. The midfielder has been difficult to manage at times due to his ability to lose his head on the pitch. On Sunday, he was a professional and remained focused, which was a mental victory for him.

The Magpies manager and the supporters will be hoping he can continue to perform to this level. If he can, the former Swansea City midfielder can be the player that everybody knows he can become.

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Arsenal

Which four of the ‘big-six’ clubs will qualify for next season’s Champions League?

Martyn Cooke

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There are just 12 games remaining of the current Premier League season and, with Manchester City seemingly destined to secure the title, attention will now turn towards the battle to secure a place in the top-four.

There are only three places available to share between Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool and two of those clubs will be have to be content with competing in the Europa League next season.

Here, The Boot Room predicts who will finish in the top four at the end of the season…

Arsenal

There was once a time when the possibility of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal failing to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable, yet the Gunners are facing the realistic possibility of missing out on playing in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive season.

This campaign they have been held back by their inconsistent and unpredictable form away from home and are playing catch-up with their rivals with a five-point gap emerging between themselves and fourth place.

There is a new sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Wenger added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his squad yet a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday would all but end their hopes – qualifying through winning the Europa League could be a more realistic option.

Prediction: 6th

Manchester United

There is currently a slight sense of disappointment around Old Trafford this season that, despite obvious progress since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, the club have had to be content with seeing cross-city rivals Manchester City stroll their way towards the Premier League title.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United missing out on a Champions League place as they already have a considerable buffer of seven points and undoubtedly have a squad that is full of quality and experience.

The arrival of Alexis Sanchez will provide additional impetus in the closing stages of the campaign and the only real danger is that their attention might be redirected towards challenging for the Champions League or FA Cup with the title already all but lost.

However, Mouirnho has his team ticking over nicely and it is likely that they will maintain their current league position.

Prediction: 2nd  

Chelsea

It has been a frustrating and increasing turbulent season at Stamford Bridge following the failure of Chelsea to build on last season’s title triumph.

Back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left the Blues clinging on to their place in the top four and there is now a realistic possibility that they may miss out on Champions League qualification.

Antonio Conte’s frustration with the club’s transfer policy has been clear to see since the summer and the off-pitch squabbling can only be a destabilising influence for the players.

Chelsea are certainly a team that are out of form and appear to be short of confidence and direction and it will be a true test of Conte’s managerial prowess to see if he can facilitate some sort of revival in the closing months of the season.

However, momentum is currently against them and they may well be one of the two clubs to miss out.

Prediction: 6th

Liverpool

You get the sense that it is always two steps forward followed by one step back at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp and you never know quite what to expect.

Liverpool continue to be consistently inconsistent as demonstrated by their recent, contrasting performances against Manchester City and Swansea City.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window is a boost, although recent games have suggested that he alone will not solve the club’s defensive frailties, whilst the sale of Phillip Coutinho is offset by the impressive array of attacking players that Klopp has collected.

If Liverpool can put together a good run of results then they will be able to capitalise on Antonio Conte’s woes as Chelsea and finish in the top four.

Prediction: 4th

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur supporters will now have a taste for Champions League football after the success of their team in this year’s competition and they are hitting form at just the right moment in the Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten since mid-December and have plenty of momentum with the inspirational figure of Harry Kane continuing to his remarkable, prolific run of form in front of goal.

Much will depend on whether the England striker can stay fit until the end of the season whilst they also need Dele Alli to rediscover the sparkle that he has lost in recent months.

Tottenham face a season-defining fixture on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the North London derby but they should have enough quality to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Prediction: 3rd

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