Rumours have emerged of yet another potential Manchester United signing to replace Paul Pogba, with Atletico Madrid star and Spain International Saul Niguez rumoured to be the subject of interest in a £135m potential move, as per TeamTalk.
Saul is a brilliant footballer, and like Pogba, is on the verge of being one of the top midfielders in the world as he approaches his prime years. However, they are nowhere close to being similar players, which raises questions as to how the 24-year-old would fit in to United’s midfield if he joined.
The problem United’s midfield faces with Paul Pogba is the lack of definition between a 4-2-3-1 double-pivot and 4-3-3 single-pivot midfield. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Frenchman was the most effective as the most advanced midfielder in a trio featuring Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, where the two engine room midfielders played in a lopsided pivot that saw Herrera join Pogba in attack and Matic in defence.
Should that be the preferred long-term system, United could simply replace the departed Herrera and ageing Matic and build a fantastic midfield. But Pogba continues to place United in a precarious position regarding his future, publicly stating his intention to leave the club last month and proving that he will almost inevitably leave at some point during his prime years, whether United hold out this summer or not.
Replacing Pogba with Saul keeps United at a similar level on paper, replacing an elite footballer with one almost equally so and at a similar stage in his career. Moreover, though, it turns United’s formational indecisiveness into a strength, swapping a player whose performances are enabled by other players with a player who will play in almost any role and make an instant impact.
The rugged, hard-working and counter-attacking style of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid prepares Saul excellently to play for a club where long spells of possession are hard to come by in games of greater magnitude.
Playing alongside Nemanja Matic in the Herrera role, Saul’s dribbling ability would directly upgrade upon Herrera’s, while maintaining similar intercepting and tackling ability, penchant for goals and assists, and overall tenacity in midfield. However, he would be hindered by Matic’s lack of mobility and seeming overall decline towards the end of last season.
The more likely reality would be more of a traditional double pivot alongside Scott McTominay, a slight upgrade upon Matic in terms of mobility, and a slightly more attacking player than the Serb. Taking turns breaking forward and holding the shape of the midfield could create plenty more attacking options for the advanced midfielder in the trio and make United more unpredictable in attack, but also very stable defensively.
In either case, though, United’s midfield still falls short of the best in the league, particularly in the passing department without Pogba. This points to the fact that United need two starting midfielders this summer in addition to a replacement for the World Cup winner if he leaves.
Currently the most heavily linked midfielder via Four Four Two, Bruno Fernandes plays in the exact same role as Pogba, on the left of a midfield three, and would likely match the goals and assists lost, as well as some of the chances created.
In defensive midfield, though, United lack a tempo-setting playmaker with the pedigree of Michael Carrick, and while the rise to fame of Sean Longstaff would be incredible to watch in the long-term, he represents a risky signing as a starter for a side that needs to finish in the Top 4.
This argument eventually circles to the original point, which is that Saul would likely succeed at United as Pogba did last season, perhaps even more so, but if other reinforcements are not made in the team, he will not be tactically positioned to perform like the elite Champions League level midfielder he is.
Solskjaer is tasked with building an entire team, not a group of players, and that is more important than the specific players he deems of requisite quality. Should Saul be one of them, though, the United faithful will not be disappointed.