The date is August 6, 2003. Manchester United are waiting to depart from Estádio da Luz, the home ground of Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. The Leões have just seen off United in a 3-1 victory, thanks, in part, to a sensational performance from a young Portuguese winger, by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, missing from the team bus are manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and the club’s chief executive David Gill.
Hidden in the bowels of stadium, Ferguson had gone to meet Ronaldo after the game, and told him “I want you now.”
With any luck, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – who started that evening in Lisbon – should have conducted a very similar meeting with the representatives of Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, after the Red Devils secured a 2-1 victory over the Villains in a highly-entertaining game at Old Trafford.
Though in this instance United won the game, the performance of Grealish was mesmerising, as he ran the defence ragged for the majority of the evening, roaming the final third. It was all reminiscent of another Portuguese man United currently have on their books.
Grealish in, Pogba out
Decisive point? Definitely. But Paul Pogba, the man who, four years ago, was deemed to be the saviour of United’s fortunes, has been underperforming on a consistent basis throughout his United career. It’s probably the only thing that’s consistent about Pogba. He produces a moment of sheer brilliance – a forty-yard cross field pass to Marcus Rashford, such as against Aston Villa – but he’ll very quickly lose his head and dumbfoundingly make a schoolboy error – such as refusing to run into the corner flag in the dying moments of the Villa game, allowing for a last-chance saloon effort for the visitors.
It’s getting tiring.
While Pogba strolls – jogs, at a push – around the middle of the pitch, Grealish's work ethic is rivalled by only one without the ball, finding room in the half-spaces to receive passes and play in teammates. While there were moments when Grealish lost the ball against United, he worked hard to retrieve it and would redeem himself soon afterwards, almost negating the initial error. That’s where Pogba’s errors become unforgivable.
Because for every forty-yard pass, for every screamer, for every assist, there’s an error that costs his side. When the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Fred, or even Daniel James – for all his raw ability – make an error, you have full knowledge that they’re going to cover the ground to help out their teammates in defence.
Unfortunately, you rarely see that in Paul Pogba. But you do see that in Jack Grealish. And that’s exactly where he fits the new United mould that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is building at Old Trafford. Pogba is the only anomaly left that doesn’t fit in to Solskjaer’s plan – yet it appears the off-chance that he produces a sensational performance keeps him in the squad – and fair enough. Who’s the alternative?
And yes, you would be right to think he’s improved recently. He’s definitely improved since Mino Raiola, his agent, spoke out on his future prior to United’s crucial Champions League group decider with RB Leipzig. It’s just these improvements seem to be in a recurring cycle with Pogba – it’s Groundhog Day and Pogba is Bill Murray.
Why Grealish suits the United mould
Now we’ve established Pogba’s unsuitability for this new, vibrant, and more hard-working side of Manchester United, let’s discuss why Jack Grealish would be a perfect replacement. His versatility ensures he can slot into the squad even when others are in form: he can play on the left, through the middle, on the right wing if you desperately need him to – he played a free-roaming midfield role against United on Friday evening, and showed why he was worth every single penny that Aston Villa were asking for his services.
Jack Grealish’s game by numbers vs. Man Utd:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) January 1, 2021
92% pass accuracy
24 final third passes
8 fouls suffered
7 ball recoveries
4 chances created
2 tackles won
Much harder to enjoy when he’s playing against your team. 😅 pic.twitter.com/Eczs0s3Czt
His set-piece delivery adds something to United’s arsenal – Fernandes is good at corners, but he would perhaps be more suitable in the middle in case of a chance of a rebound, such as against Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League. Alex Telles is also a strong corner-taker, but Grealish adds another string to United’s bow.
And most importantly, he could end United’s over-reliance on Bruno Fernandes. Like it or not, United look half the team when Fernandes is out of the side or taken off – and the stats back that up.
Fernandes has the most goals and assists in the Premier League since joining, with thirty-three. He has the second-most shots, behind Mohamed Salah (a more out-and-out forward), and yes – he has scored the most penalties, if you’re one of those people.
He’s also created the third-most chances in the league since joining. The two ahead of him? Kevin de Bruyne and Grealish.
Bringing Grealish in would end United’s reliance on Fernandes, allow for respite and a like-for-like replacement, rather than bringing on the up-and-down Dan James in replacement of the Portugal international on Friday.
Grealish is the perfect man to add to this talented United squad, regardless of the cost. If they are serious about contending for the Premier League this season, it's a deal that needs to be done.