There was a pivotal moment in Paul Pogba’s first season at Manchester United, albeit one that did not arrive until March. Injured in a Europa League tie with Rostov, Pogba missed the next three games. The first one, a 3-1 win at nearly relegated Middlesbrough, went smoothly enough. The next two, home games against West Bromwich Albion and Everton, did not.
Both ended in draws — 0-0 and 1-1 — to effectively end any hope United had of qualifying for the Champions League through the Premier League route. The two results were noted down as evidence of a wider problem; not enough goals scored and too many home draws.
But early-season stalemates against Burnley and Stoke had a lot to do with the performance of their goalkeepers. Jose Mourinho used it as a way of suggesting almost everything was right, apart from the ball actually going into the net. However, the draws against West Brom and Everton were different. In both games, United had most of the possession — 75 percent against West Brom and 62 percent against Everton — but could not turn it into anything meaningful.
United had six shots on target in the two games combined. Against Burnley in October, they had 11. Against West Brom and Everton it was not a case of a goalkeeper playing out of his skin; it was that he did not have much to do at all.
For the first time since Pogba’s return from Juventus, fans got to see what Mourinho’s United looked like without him.
With Pogba, the problem had been that the team were not taking enough of their chances. Without him, it was that they were not making enough. For many observers, it had taken Pogba’s injury to realise what it was that he did. As the France international said himself last season, those expecting him to repay his £89.3 million transfer fee with a goal return to match Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi will be disappointed. And an assist is only an assist if someone finishes it off: something that didn’t happen enough last season.
It is telling that Opta calculated Pogba created 57 chances in the Premier League last season yet ended the campaign with just four assists to his name. To put that into context, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has five in four league games this season.
United are set to be without Pogba again after the 24-year-old was forced off during the 3-0 win over Basel with a hamstring injury. He is likely to miss Everton’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday and will be a doubt for games against Southampton, CSKA Moscow and Crystal Palace before the next international break. He probably would not have played against Burton Albion in the League Cup next week, anyway, but the hope will be that, whatever happens, he is fit to face Liverpool at Anfield on Oct. 14, United’s first test against one of the top six.
Whether Pogba is out for days or weeks, his absence presents a problem for Mourinho. The obvious answer is to bring in another midfielder, whether it’s Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera or Michael Carrick. All boast their own specific qualities but they cannot replace Pogba’s creativity, the ability to open up a game with one touch or swivel.
It is part of Mourinho’s struggle to balance freedom and instinct with organisation and discipline and Pogba is central to finding a happy medium. United struggled to break down Leicester in their last league game at Old Trafford. In the end, Marcus Rashford scored from Mkhitaryan’s corner to make the breakthrough but it was Pogba who produced a second of skill to help win the set-piece. He had no goal and no assist but had something statistics cannot measure. He was crucial to United scoring and winning the game, nonetheless.
“Squads are for this,” Mourinho said when asked about Pogba’s injury on Tuesday night. “Squads are for injuries, squads are for suspensions. So if no Paul for Sunday, we have Herrera, we have Carrick, we have Fellaini and we have Matic. We don’t cry.”
Missing one of his most influential players — whether Pogba gets credit for it or not — Mourinho can only hope he feels the same way for the duration of the midfielder’s lay-off.
Rob is ESPN FC’s Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.