Pogba Can Make Man United Champions League Contenders

Manchester United with Paul Pogba and Manchester United without Paul Pogba are two very different teams, that much, by this point, is evident.

The French superstar returned to action on Saturday afternoon after a two-month layoff due to a hammering injury and instantly transformed the Red Devils into a more fluid, creative and dynamic unit, leading José Mourinho's men as they hammered Newcastle United 4-1 at Old Trafford.


After the home side slipped behind to a 14th-minute Dwight Gayle goal, and with the Magpies holding their own in the early goings, it was Pogba who took responsibility for United getting back into the game, conducting play from deep and surging forward when possible.

His unique inventiveness conjured the equaliser, producing a moment of mesmerising skill on the right side of the Newcastle penalty area before crossing for compatriot Anthony Martial to head home. And Pogba got on the scoresheet himself in the second half, before leaving the field to a standing ovation after 69 minutes.

His overall individual display showcased exactly what United had been missing in his absence, acting as the focal point of the side and the man tasked with both orchestrating play in deep areas and unlocking defences in the final third.

But what Pogba adds to United is about far more than his own brilliance: his mere presence raises the level of those around him, making the Red Devils greater than the sum of their parts – or, at least, greater than the sum of their individual output when he's not there.


United's Stats With And Without Pogba

Pogba's hamstring injury, picked up against Wednesday night's opponent's Basel in United's first Champions League group stage game of the season, caused him to miss seven Premier League games.

The full impact of Pogba's absence is borne out in United's key stats for the period he missed, with all metrics paling in comparison to the cumulative numbers for the four league games he played before the injury and his triumphant return to the side against Newcastle on Saturday.

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Of course, the level of opposition will be a factor, with United having had to face Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea recently without their No.6, while they enjoyed a relatively soft start to the season. But the stark contrast in the numbers shows just how much Pogba was missed, in all areas of United's play.

Firstly, the Red Devils' points-per-game average with Pogba in the side is 2.6, whereas United averaged just 1.85 points in the seven matches the Frenchman missed. If Mourinho's men had been able to maintain their average points taken before Pogba's injury, United would only be three points behind league leaders Manchester City, rather than the eight points they currently trail their local rivals by.

United's attack suffered most while Pogba was out. Although his return of three goals and two assists from five games is impressive for a player in his position, his contribution to United's offensive play cannot be quantified by these stats alone, as he is often the one to quicken the pace, to play a defence-opening pass in the build-up, or help his side transition rapidly from defence to attack.

With Pogba in the team this season, United average seven shots on target and 3.2 goals per game; without him those averages tumble to 3.85 and 1.57 respectively.

It's a similar story when assessing their expected goals (xG), too. This metric applies a numerical value to every chance created based on historical data – the higher the number, the more clear-cut the chance. With Pogba, United's average xG per game this term is 2.77, falling dramatically to just 1.53 without him.

Again, having played three games against high-calibre opposition in his absence, and the inherent change of tactics within those matches, a drop-off was always likely. But even when taking out the games against Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea, United's xG average was 2.18.

One of the biggest benefactors of Pogba's presence in the team is striker Juventus man midfielder was out, including a run of seven all-competitions outings without finding the net.

Lukaku, despite his size, is relatively ineffective as a target man, and instead thrives on balls played in behind the opposition's backline for him to run on to, using his size, strength and finishing ability to great effect. Without Pogba, United lack someone who can feed the ex-Everton striker in this way, and instead resort to long, lofted balls up to the Belgian, which are easier for defenders to deal with and suit his style less.

Playing with Pogba, Lukaku averages 4.8 shots and 7.8 touches in the opposition's box per game; without Pogba, these averages drop to just 2.57 and 3.42 respectively.

Indeed, in the defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Lukaku didn't touch the ball in the Blues' penalty area once. Of course, against such top-drawer defences he is likely to be better marshalled, but you have to think Pogba would have got the ball to the big No.9 more regularly.

And, although United have actually conceded fewer goals without Pogba (0.42 goals per game to 0.6), they generally give up a lower quality of opportunity to their opponent's with the Frenchman present, evidenced by their average of 0.84 xG against per game compared to 1.19 while he was away.

All of this goes to show that, not only is Pogba a crucial figure for United in terms of what he personally brings to the team, but the Red Devils really don't function as well as a side without him. Still only 24 and improving all the time, the 49-cap Les Bleus star's importance at Old Trafford cannot be overstated.

The difference he makes to Mourinho's side is night and day. Without Pogba, United are a solid team who can reasonably aim for runners-up spot to City in the league and a place in the Champions League quarter-finals; with him fit and firing, no team in the Premier League or Champions League can afford to take the Red Devils lightly – that's how great his impact is.


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