Judge Mkhitaryan and Lukaku upon Pogba’s return, they have an excuse for poor form
In the fantastic book The Numbers Game, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally argue the point that owners of football clubs can spend all the money in the world on the best superstar striker, but if said club’s weak link in the team keeps giving the ball away, that striker won’t get enough chances to make a seismic impact.
Nonetheless, foreign football owners often adhere to a more “strong link” approach. They sign these superstar players because they are more glamorous – they put bums on seats and bring in immediate revenue.
In contrast, those who agree with Anderson and Sally make strengthening their weak links priority. Manchester City needed better full backs and a dependable goalkeeper in the summer – it may have cost them a great deal, but strengthening these areas has yielded incredible results.
At Manchester United, Paul Pogba’s influence can be applied to both approaches. He is that strong link, superstar attraction, who has a social media presence on par with big-name Hollywood actors, while on the pitch, he is that marquee signing people want to see.
However, his position in the side means he has to be regarded as that first link, the instigator of attacks that brings the best out of the other star names in the United side. Fans were unhappy with the brand of football at times last season, so Nemanja Matic was brought in, which addressed a weak area of the side, allowing Pogba more licence to get forward. Take him out of the side, and others suffer.
Lukaku and Mkhitaryan form suffering
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Romelu Lukaku looked unstoppable earlier this season. Mkhitaryan, who had mustered just one assist all season last campaign, provided five goals in the opening three games of the season, while Lukaku was scoring goals for fun, breaking records in the process.
As United have stuttered of late, however, both Mkhitaryan and Lukaku’s form has nosedived. Lukaku is without a goal since the 4-0 win over Crystal Palace in September and Mkhitaryan has become a drifter in the midfield, contributing next to nothing to the United attack.
A player of Pogba’s ability drags the very best out of those around him. Mkhitaryan had the rampaging Frenchman breaking either side of him, and was regularly picked out by Pogba’s ranging passes in those pockets he likes to work in. Ander Herrera doesn’t fulfil either need.
Like Sally and Anderson so eloquently argue, Lukaku cannot get the goals if his supply line is cut off. Pogba supplies Mkhitaryan, who supplies Lukaku. Cut out that first, accurate Pogba pass, and the move falls down before it has even started.
The stats provide further proof that Mkhitaryan and Lukaku are being starved. Against Liverpool and Tottenham, Mkhitaryan only managed to touch the ball 44 and 49 times. Comparing that with Philippe Coutinho, 68, and Christian Eriksen, 88. Yes, it can be argued the Armenian has to get involved more, but if he isn’t given the ball, what can he do?
Pogba return could turn things around
Against Chelsea, Lukaku cut an isolated figure. He mustered just 24 touches all match, not one of those coming in the home side’s penalty area.
“When the ball comes into him, he’s not getting hold of that ball to bring other people into the game as much as he should as far as I’m concerned,” former United midfielder Ray Wilkins said of Lukaku recently. “But as a forward you need that service, you need someone to be giving you that ball.”
Both can do more, of that there is no question, but without the ball at their feet, they are limited to what they can do.
Pogba could return against Newcastle at the weekend. He may still be hindered by his recent injury problems, but even half fit, he brings a passing quality conspicuous by its absence in United’s play during his spell on the sidelines.
A goal could well spark Lukaku into life. It isn’t like he doesn’t possess the ability – his record speaks for itself. That goal could well be provided by Mkhitaryan once more, having being picked out by Pogba in space. All could well be well at Old Trafford again as a result.
With Pogba back, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku will see more of the ball. Then, it is up to them to do something with it. Fail to make a positive impact and then they can be judged. Until Pogba is back addressing that weak link, expect both to continue to toil.