Reports all season have suggested that Manchester United’s Paul Pogba could be headed to Real Madrid this summer, with the latest coming from the Telegraph, culminating the polarizing time the Frenchman has spent at Manchester United.
Pogba has faced many challenges at United, but it would be undeniably difficult to replace him. His inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year 2019, believed to be underserved by many, is nonetheless indicative of the quality which allowed him to muster 15 goals and 10 assists in all competitions this season, as per WhoScored.
What makes Pogba unique is that, while many players have similar goal and assist tallies, and there are as many excellent central midfielders, finding both in a single player is very difficult.
The 31 goals and providing 17 assists (via Transfermarkt) posted by central midfielder Bruno Fernandes in Portugal this season led many to believe that transferring his skillset to a more difficult league would be the only obstacle preventing him from being the perfect Pogba replacement. They were wrong, as a much greater obstacle emerged in Manchester City, who, if reports from multiple outlets including Sky Sports are to be believed, will sign the 24-year-old for £47 million.
Fernandes has obvious incentive to move to Manchester City, as Pep Guardiola’s side are simply more ambitious than United at present. That is a difficult pill for United to swallow considering Manchester City have much less need for the player and yet still secured his signing for a healthily low fee.
It is not controversial that Pogba may want to leave United given that the club’s ambitions that have flattered to deceive since he joined. Old Trafford will be a Europa League ground for the 2019/20 season, as it was when the 26-year-old joined the club. Even the upcoming seasons promise little in way of trophies, which, for any footballer at Pogba’s level, is a priority.
The criticism of Pogba is that his disenchantment with the club’s lack of ambition and reported desire to leave may have affected his conduct this season. Nonetheless, his goals, assists, and stellar footballing ability would be missed at Old Trafford. If United want to replace Pogba correctly, they need to consider their options.
James Maddison, Leicester City
Many outlets have reported that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wishes to build his side around young English talent, and Maddison, arguably top of the list of English talents, is a 22-year-old whose role at Leicester is very similar to Pogba at United.
Deployed in either central midfield, attacking midfield or on the left-wing, Maddison will not be a victim of the same fate as archetypal attacking midfielders like Juan Mata, who has suffered playing out wide due to the evolution of tactics away from players of his mould.
Maddison’s 7 goals and 7 assists (via WhoScored) equal Pogba’s 5 and 9 from open play this season even though goals and assists aren’t his greatest strengths. He leads Premier League midfielders in crossing and chance creation; no player in England’s top flight has more than his 2.8 key passes per 90 minutes, which places him 4th in Europe.
Maddison’s ability to play out of tight situations, create space for teammates and make calculated creative gambles will prepare him for both the counter-attacking and possession-based setups United succeeded with during Solskjaer’s interim tenure.
The 22-year-old would be a crucial player for United but at a premium price. Transfermarkt state that his value has tripled since Leicester signed him for about £20 million last year, as reported by BBC Sport, meaning it wouldn’t be ridiculous to believe that Maddison could move for a figure in the region of £60 million, which is admittedly a hefty sum for an attacking player with limited experience at the highest level.
Paulo Dybala, Juventus
If United want a player to immediately alleviate the damage of Pogba’s loss, Paulo Dybala is a world-class talent who would bring a certain tactical freshness to United’s play.
Dybala seems to have become available because he is a tactical misfit at Juventus, and should he want to be a key player and leader, United would be the perfect place for him. Solskjaer would simply deploy Dybala further forward than Pogba in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation, where he could operate behind a central striker.
In the best goal-scoring season of his career last season, Dybala netted 22 times in 33 Serie A appearances (via WhoScored), but he would be expected to net 15 at United. Like Maddison, he excels in all creative departments, and Dybala is even better at ball retention, as evidenced by his 89.9% pass completion this season.
Dybala’s flexibility would offer United’s misfiring strikers the chance to improve upon their weaknesses; be it Anthony Martial’s isolation from the rest of the side, Romelu Lukaku’s poor skillset outside the box or Marcus Rashford’s tendency to vacate his position and leave opposing centre-backs unoccupied, the Argentine would be able to fill in and allow his teammates to succeed.
The red flag is that it seems unlikely that a player of Dybala’s stature would join a club outside the Champions League, and for the reported figures in the region of £85 million (via ITV), United must be sure they are acquiring a player who truly wants to be at the club and not one who wants a payday or a stepping stone to greener pastures.
Ryan Fraser and David Brooks, Bournemouth
Should moves for players of the calibre of Dybala or potential of Maddison not pan out, United will need to consider more unorthodox options to replicate Pogba’s creativity and output. Fewer options could be more unorthodox to replace a central midfielder than Bournemouth’s two wide threats, Ryan Fraser and David Brooks, who would likely move for a lower combined fee than either of the aforementioned duo and yet could make a similar impact.
Fraser’s 14 assists this season put him only one behind Eden Hazard, who leads Europe’s top five Leagues, and one ahead of Lionel Messi (via WhoScored). A player who typically plays from left-wing but can adapt to the opposite side, Fraser can perform in United’s current system or even a 4-4-2, in which he could dovetail with Anthony Martial and double up on opponents from the left.
At 25, Fraser is much closer to his peak than Brooks, 21, a childhood United fan who has primarily played at right-wing this season but loves to occupy central areas and may have a long-term future in a midfield three. While Fraser tends to make classic channel runs and loves to cross the ball, Brooks is more of an all-rounder, able to hit in-swingers with his strong left foot, out-swingers from the opposite flank, or even more preferably, play through balls and make runs into the box through the centre.
Combining for 14 goals and 19 assists (via WhoScored) in a side that scored significantly fewer than this season’s misfiring United outfit, these players could likely get up to 50% more than that next season. As aggressive, forward-thinking players who love to run and wear their hearts on their sleeves, they both resemble United throwbacks. Brooks’ value has quadrupled (via Transfermarkt) since he joined Bournemouth for £10 million last summer but Bournemouth would almost undoubtedly be willing to sell for less than £40 million, though they are equally likely to hold out for more than the £15 million that Fraser is supposedly worth.