On the 7 December, reporter Fabrizio Romano reported that Paul Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, had claimed that the Frenchman was unhappy and could “no longer express” himself at the club. It was 24 hours before the crucial Champions League tie against RB Leipzig and only 48 hours after Pogba had helped United come back against West Ham in the league.
Since then Pogba’s performances have, arguably, been his best in a United shirt since Ole Gunner Solskjaer first joined the club as interim manager. Raiola had said that it would best if he went in January. He has, however, since backtracked on that claiming that “in January the great players hardly move.” If Pogba does truly want to leave, United will not want to let him go on a free, so 2021 would see Pogba moving on. If that’s the case, who will United replace him with?
Jack Grealish was heavily linked with United at the end of the last season, before ending speculation by signing a new five-year contract with Aston Villa. Of course, new contracts mean very little. Often it is just to ensure that the club gets more money from the players suitors. Jack Grealish almost single handily kept Villa from the drop last season and he and his team started this season in inspired form, with the standout 7-2 victory over Liverpool still fresh in all of their fan’s minds.
Grealish himself was on fire with four goals and six assists in their first seven league games. His goals have dried up a little, not scoring since the end of November, however his side haven’t suffered too much, losing just one of those games and he continues to be highly influential. United are still rumoured to want the player, however, Villa are expected to rebuff any moves in January. If United received a substantial fee for Pogba, they could put all that money towards a move for the Villa captain, who has also forced himself into the England set up as well. With both him and Fernandes on the pitch, the United forwards would receive plenty of chances every game.
United fans were thrown into a frenzy when they saw Solskjaer talking to Grealish as they left the pitch together last month, but it will take a huge fee to persuade Villa and their wealthy owners to sell.
A defensive midfielder
Of course, the position that many United fans believe needs an upgrade, is in defensive midfield. United might feel that they have enough options in Pogba’s position (more on that shortly) and decide to use the funds raised to sign a top defensive midfielder.
If they want a player who has experienced the Premier League but is young enough to make that position his own for many years to come then they have two options available. Wilfred Ndidi and Declan Rice. Both players have made over 100 appearances, both are full internationals and both have burgeoning reputations. West Ham have been much better this season and one big reason for that is Rice. Turning 22 a few days ago, he has made 37 interceptions this season alongside 124 recoveries, highlighting his ability to break up play. His passing is also vastly improved in the last couple of seasons and with the Euro’s pushed back a year, an impressive showing there could inflate his price even more.
Wilfred Ndidi (24) started this season injured and his return has shown his importance to Brendan Rodger’s Leicester side. In the nine games that he has played, The Foxes have won seven, losing just once. In the nine games other games, they only won four. That Leicester side, you feel, is the blueprint to the balance Solskjaer wants in his side. Ndidi is the ball-winning midfielder, with 82 recoveries in those nine games. Youri Tielemens is the box-to-box midfielder and James Maddison is the Bruno Fernandes of the team. Ndidi allows the other two to do what they need to do in the final third of the pitch, safely knowing that Ndidi will mop anything up in behind them.
More left-field but no less spoken about in the tabloid transfer rumours, is Eduardo Camavinga. If United wanted to make a calculated risk on a young player, then he might be the right fit. Just 18, he made his breakthrough in the Rennes side last season, helping the French side to make the Champions League. He would then make his French national team debut, scoring an overhead kick in his first start. Pogba, himself, lavished the youngster with praise after that goal and United at one point this season were seen as big challengers to Real Madrid for the player. Showing an ability to get forward and also good intelligence in defence, he could be the perfect box-to-box replacement for Pogba.
United may want to see more goals and assists from him if he was going to be asked to get forward, but at his age there is plenty of time to develop. However, do United want a player who still needs some developing or do they need a player ready to start now? Of course, they could sign him and slowly bed him into the side and use a certain player in the squad that many are crying out to get some game time.
Donny van de Beek
Ah the conundrum of Donny van de Beek. No doubt he is a classy player. He shows that each time he plays. He wants to play forward quickly, one or two touch was the Ajax way after all. However, he hasn’t had that much game time this season. He would fit in that box-to-box midfield position, the position he played for Ajax with so much success, 28 league goals and 21 assists in the last three seasons, shows he can influence the game higher up the pitch. At just 23, he is going to get many, many games at Old Trafford and Gary Neville recently gave an interesting theory on van de Beek. Neville claiming that van de Beek “might have been signed to replace Paul Pogba” could very much be on the money.
In a way it makes sense. Solskjaer might have known that Pogba wanted to leave back in the summer. On the face of it, van de Beek was a strange summer transfer. It came out of nowhere and van de Beek seemed to be on the brink of moving to Real Madrid. If van de Beek spends the year getting accustomed to England, he could be ready to nail down a first team place come next season. Add in one of the defensive midfielders above and van de Beek could be an integral part of the United team for the next few years.
The youth team
Of course, maybe United won’t replace him at all. Solskjaer is known for bringing players up from the reserves into the first team. He has handed out numerous debuts and Mason Greenwood and Axel Tuanzebe have both seen an increase in first team action in the last season and a half. United also have a few midfielders who could play that box-to-box midfield position.
Hannibal Mejbri is highly touted and United fans have been excited about him since his signing from Monaco. James Garner is spending the season on loan at Watford and Solskjaer will be eager to see his development on his return. Ethan Gailbraith received his United debut in that Europa League game vs Astana last season. He signed a fresh three-year deal last October and is seen as someone who could be an unsung player for United in the next few years. United will also be hoping that they can tie down Arnau Puigmal to a longer-term contract, with his deal due to run out this summer. The fear is that he has he sights on a return to Barcelona, which as seen in the past with Gerard Pique, will be hard to prevent. He is currently enjoying his best season with the under 23’s and can also play down the right flank, both in defence and attack. All four of these players are very different to Pogba (most box-to-box midfielders are) and they might be the way Solskjaer goes if he wants to use funds to bolster other areas in the squad.
Written by Huw Rawlings