Manchester United’s best hope of salvaging their season rests at the feet of Paul Pogba and his ability play at his best.
Pogba contributed more than any other player as United were humiliated against Watford. He managed to play around 20 minutes – and such was his form, that defeat may have been avoided had he played from the start.
His passing was as remembered, the best that United have seen since the retirement of Michael Carrick. His ability to pick a pass would match anything on offer at Barcelona, and he would certainly stand out in Real Madrid’s midfield.
Juventus, another potential suitor, have nobody with his range. It nevertheless appears that he will remain at the club for at least the rest of the season, and if he continues the form from his last appearance, United might yet scrape a top-four finish.
Pogba’s return would allow United to relegate Jesse Lingard back to the bench. Lingard is an odd mixture of effort and ineffectiveness. Whether it is deliberate or not, he is rarely found in positions where his talent and bravery is tested. Instead, he is a safe and pedestrian player. That might be useful in central midfield, but serves to blunt attacks when he is deployed as a number 10 or on the wing.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clearly knows that United are struggling for guile. He has occasionally given Juan Mata the chance, but it appears that age has caught up with him dramatically in the last couple of seasons. Never the fastest, his body hampers him carrying out even the most basic tasks.
Pogba may only be intermittently fit, and intermittently focused, but when he is determined, he carries the ball serenely and with impressive technique. There is nobody in the squad who offers the same, nor is there an easily secured alternative available for transfer.
After speculation over his willingness to compete for United, Pogba demonstrated his talents at Vicarage Road. It is not enough to overturn a couple of seasons of criticism, some justified and some hysterical, but it points a way forward for club and player.
Both parties have appeared lost since the start of Jose Mourinho’s last season and both could benefit from having one of the very best players in the world leading the side with the performances that helped his country win the World Cup.
With Daniel James, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial ahead of him, there are plenty of chances to create and goals to be scored. It also allows Fred and Scott McTominay to provide assistance in the middle.
Regardless of whether Pogba wants to stay for the long term, he can’t coast for another season. Real Madrid spent €348 million (£300m/$389m) elsewhere before they even considered moving for him.
The season before, Barcelona thought he was worth just €58m (£50m/$65m), plus the twin afterthought of Yerry Mina and Andre Gomes. This is no longer a player who is the next big thing, this is a 26-year-old who is in danger of missing his chance at brilliance.
Modern players often talk of wanting to leave a legacy, yet there is nothing yet in Pogba’s. Reigniting United on their path to recovery could be a start, even if he departs after Euro 2020.
It is not all on Pogba. Martial’s finishing in the box has again deserted him. James looks tired, and you can see why Solskjaer wants another right-winger and another striker to take some of the strain. Fred and McTominay have done well to improve in Pogba’s absence, but there is clearly not enough between them to start challenging at the top of the table or to dominate lesser teams.
There are concerns further back, too. Temperamentally Harry Maguire has appeared calm and in control, but signs of leadership are not yet apparent. Victor Lindelof remains a bag of nerves at 25. An improvement needs to be rapid and significant. The greatest indictment of the side though is at full-back.
It is a truism that this position is the one that has altered most fundamentally in latest leap forward in modern football. They need to be creative, technically flawless, understand defensive positioning and have the stamina and speed to make the most of their attacking talents. It is perhaps the most demanding role in football, and few players now sustain a decade-long career in the position.
It appears that for United, Luke Shaw will be lucky to get to 26 still in possession of a career at all. On the other flank, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is defensively superb but his weakness betrays a deeper concern over Solskjaer.
Of course, a defender needs to defend, but a club like United would perhaps be better served by a modern full-back throwing himself at the opposition defence, as Brandon Williams has done. Dropping points due to a lack of creativity is close to unforgivable. Solskjaer must know that defending is not enough. If the Norwegian has planned to oversee an improvement in the 22-year-old England international’s attacking game, then it must be a concern that his coaching has done little to improve any other player in the squad.
Nevertheless, the manager has earned the right to be backed in the transfer window, but if players like Erling Haaland arrive, then excuses start to dwindle for both Solskjaer and Pogba. They will be given the players with which to thrive.
Against Newcastle, both of them have to demonstrate they are capable of offering far more if they are to have a future at Manchester United and beyond.