Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez - the franchise players
A team, it appears, is not a franchise. Manchester United struggling to have both
Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba have struggled for form of late. Photograph: Reuters
In American sports there is the phrase “franchise player”. It refers to an individual who is deemed not just to be a good player but someone around whom a business can be built, endorsement deals struck, season tickets renewed. The franchise player does not have to be the most effective on the team, though it does help, but they will certainly be paid as if they are.
Paul Pogba is a franchise player. His extra-curricular role has been a tricky one for Manchester United to accommodate, one made no less complicated by the arrival of another such player, Alexis Sánchez. These men are the expensive embodiment of the Glazer family’s post-Ferguson vision and both must play. Fitting them on the pitch at the same time has proven a challenge for José Mourinho but at Selhurst Park it was not just positions that were sent out of whack but an entire system of play.
United clambered back from two goals down to win this match in the dying seconds with a screamer. To that extent it was redolent of bygone Fergie times. But while Mourinho claimed his side had overwhelmed Crystal Palace in the final half hour, the explanation did not quite convince. Palace contributed as much to their own downfall as anything United mustered, their play turning from confident to conflicted the moment Patrick van Aanholt gave the hosts a two-goal lead.
Up until that point Palace had played with assurance, with a plan but without ego. United did not function in the same manner. If they had a plan in the opening half it was in the heads of Sánchez, and especially Pogba, alone.
Both players were entitled to demand the ball from the watercarriers around them when they wanted. Pogba would stroll in between the midfield lines, freed from midfield responsibility by the presence of both Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay. He would demand the ball, inevitably receive it, roll it under his foot then look for the killer pass.
Pogba has the ability to play that pass, there is no doubt about that. But he did not deliver it in this match. Moreover, when the golden ball failed to come off, or for that matter the breathtaking dribble, Pogba would inevitably waggle his right hand in the air, berating someone of something.
From Sánchez there was a little more sobriety but equally little effectiveness. He picked up the ball in precisely the same spaces as Pogba but looked for the one-two or the dinked pass over the top to his forward Romelu Lukaku. Sánchez has had the benefit of seeing such ideas succeed at Arsenal, so it at least made some sense. But again none of the tricks came off.
After the interval, Pogba was forced into a midfield two by the introduction of Marcus Rashford. He did not stick to it but thanks to Palace’s collective collywobble was rarely punished for his tactical misdemeanours. While roaming about he managed to hit two 25-yard shots on target, though they did not worry a nervy Wayne Hennessey in the Palace goal.
Rashford himself made a positive contribution in his second-half cameo. The 20-year-old brought some width to United and dragged Palace’s already worried players into places they did not want to go.
He has suffered more than most from the gilding of United’s squad this season. Rashford has been forced first from contention at centre-forward by the arrival of Lukaku and then from the wings by Sánchez. Alongside his fellow Carrington alumni Jesse Lingard, Rashford is the sort of player United have built successful teams upon in the past. But a team, it appears, is not a franchise.