Finally — and I do mean finally — the Paul Pogba transfer saga is over.
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As you’ve probably heard by now, the former Manchester United midfielder is “former” no more after completing his world-record transfer back to the Premier League from Juventus. This likely concludes Man United’s major transfer dealings for the summer, and in good time with the 2016-17 PL season kicking off this weekend.
As such, it’s the perfect time to discuss the question on everyone’s mind in light of Pogba’s move to Old Trafford:
Why did they let him go for free only to buy him back for $116 million? (Just kidding, there aren’t enough hours in the rest of our lives to answer that.) Serious question: Are the Red Devils title contenders this year?
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Last week, I wrote the following in PST’s season preview of United:
United can improve four places from last season, and win the league, because… There’s practically nothing to separate the top five or six sides heading into the season. If one or two results go their way early on, they’ll be great front-runners under [Jose] Mourinho.
Actually, United could miss out on Champions league qualification altogether, because… There’s practically nothing to separate the top five or six sides heading into the season. If one or two results go against them early on, they’ll be terrible chasers under Mourinho.
Fast forward a week, and the signing of Pogba boosts Mourinho’s squad from hopefuls to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, to suddenly squarely in the title race. The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that this season’s title race is wide open without anything resembling a clear-cut favorite. Any one of eight sides could win it, and no one will bat an eye.
“(Where) will Wayne Rooney play,” was and still is question no. 1 for Mourinho to work out, but “Who starts in central midfield,” ran a close second prior to Monday’s announcement. No two-man combination of Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind was ever going to inspire confidence.
Now, with Pogba, the versatile two-way player that he is, in the mix, Mourinho can go any number of routes in central midfield based on the day’s opponent. Facing a bottom-half side that’ll sit deep and aim to soak up the pressure? Start Herrera alongside Pogba, push the Spaniard forward and break down the bunker. Facing a fellow title contender with goal-scoring firepower out the wazoo? Schneiderlin’s your man for a bit of extra steel in midfield, to shield the backline and break up play. Up a goal with 10 minutes to play? Sub on Schweinsteiger and push Pogba into the most-advanced of the three central positions.
With the midfield now sorted, we can focus on all the attacking talent at Mourinho’s disposal (should he choose to use it). Zlatan Ibrahimovic marked his competitive debut with the winning goal in the Community Shield on Sunday; he should be good for 15 to 20 league goals this season. 18-year-old Marcus Rashford continues to show signs of his rapid development, and Anthony Martial actually looked last season like he might one day be worth the $55 million United paid for him last summer. Jesse Lingard remains a steady contributor every time he takes the field, and the signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan will give United the kind of no. 10/underneath striker hybrid they’ve long dreamt of Rooney becoming. Then there’s Memphis Depay, for whom there might simply not be a place in this United squad.
Perhaps the only thing that can stop United from returning to (what they’ll consider) their rightful place atop the footballing world, is the man in charge, Mr. Mourinho. No matter what happens at United this season, it’ll be must-see television from beginning to end.