With Manchester United having won seven and lost just two of the 11 Premier League matches so far this season, you would expect them to be earning praise and challenging at the top of the table.
Instead, they are trailing eight points behind an imperious Manchester City side, while the free-flowing football that marked their start to the season has gradually given way to attrition and defensive organisation.
While several players have borne the brunt of the criticism for this, the absence of Paul Pogba is arguably the single most significant factor in United’s recent loss of fluidity.
If you see the enhanced odds at KickOff, United are now priced at around 16/1 to win the Premier League. In contrast, their City neighbours are a staggering 2/11, after recording their best start to a Premier League season.
This does not reflect the formative part of the season, however, during which time United won nine of their ten games in all competitions and plundered 32 goals in the process.
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Pogba played an influential role in five of these games, before a serious hamstring injury forced him off during the Champions League clash with FC Basel.
After returning from the last international break without Pogba (and Marouane Fellaini), United have won four of seven matches in all competitions and scored only seven goals.
The influence of technical players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata has also waned during this time, leaving Romelu Lukaku and often isolated figure in attack – the Belgian has now failed to score since the 4-0 win over Crystal Palace on 30th September.
These factors are all interconnected, while they all start with the more advanced role that Pogba has adopted after the signing of Nemanja Matic.
Having been released to spend more time operating in the final third, Pogba’s technique and marauding presence immediately drew the attention of defenders, creating crucial pockets of space for the diminutive Mkhitaryan and Mata.
With Lukaku’s raw pace also forcing teams to defend deeper, there was considerable space for United’s chief creative forces to operate.
Pogba’s own ability to unlock defences has also been sorely missed, with the Frenchman capable of feeding the runs of Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial while they are in space.
This was a theme that was also evident last year when Pogba created 57 chances for his teammates in the Premier League and more than 90 in all competitions. Without his attacking threat, United have been sorely lacking in the final third, and this has taken a toll on their other creative players.
It’s easy to forget just how effortlessly good Pogba is, with his combination of power, strength and technical ability effectively making him the equivalent of two players in one.
His physical presence also means that he attracts the attention of defenders in the final third, creating space for United’s technical players and forwards to make their mark.
His return could well see United return to something like their early season form, while players like Lukaku and the underwhelming Mkhitaryan should also be able to rediscover their respective mojos.
Whether it can make a difference in the title race is far harder to determine, although United will at least need Pogba fit and ready for when City visit Old Trafford on 6th December.