Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has hailed Paul Pogba as "the best all-round midfielder in the world" and called his return from injury "a big, big plus" for Manchester United.
He hopes to start Pogba, who played for the first time since September when he came off the bench in United’s woeful 2-0 defeat away to Watford on Sunday, at Old Trafford on Boxing Day against a rejuvenated Newcastle United.
After the match at Vicarage Road, a frustrated Solskjaer described Pogba's return as the "only plus".
“Let’s see how he reacts,” said the Norwegian manager after the disappointing defeat at bottom of the league Watford. “Paul did really well when he came on, it’s a big, big plus. It might be that we do get him in from the start. Paul can play anywhere – in the whole midfield.
"He’s a box-to-box midfielder, he can drop deep, get the ball and play those long passes. He can play higher up, combine like he did today.
"He’s the best all-round midfielder in the world, but if I play him low then I should have played him high and if I play him high then I should have played him low. There will always be that discussion with him.”
Newcastle have won five of their last seven games under former Manchester United defender Steve Bruce, the last of which a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday when attacking-midfielder Miguel Almiron finally scored his first goal for the club in his 27th Premier League appearance for the Magpies.
“It will be difficult to break them down and I expect that we get the fair share of possession,” said Solskjaer. “One of the good things about the team is that we have reacted after bad results. We haven’t kept the consistency that we’d like, but we’ve never gone on a big run [of poor results] like we did towards the end of last season.”
United are currently eighth – level on points with Newcastle but with a vastly superior goal difference – managing just six wins from 18 games. They’ve been unable to win more than two consecutive league games all season.
Solskjaer is cautious when asked about this inconsistency and emphasises instead the process which is ongoing to reshape the side.
“We’re half way through this season, a season we knew would be ups and downs,” he said. “It will be used to find a team and a squad for next season, but if we can speed this process up by getting more results then expect us to be more consistent.
"We’re learning from these set backs, but at the moment we’re a little bit further behind than what I would have expected or want to be.”
So what is he looking for? “We want to be a team which can dominate teams and break teams down,” Solskjaer says. “Liverpool have taken a few years to get to that stage and we need to keep on building. Yes, we’re good at counter attacking and we have pace. We should keep that, but we have to be better at breaking up blocks from lower teams.
"We created loads of chances but whenever we lose the ball there’s a counter attack. We need to lock it down more. That’s where this team is going to grow.”
United have only lost once at Old Trafford this season – against Palace in August – and Solskjaer insists the team talk against Newcastle will be an "easy" one.
He will tell his players: "Show a reaction, get the fans on your side – and that’s no problem because our fans have always been on our side when we've needed them.”
But those same fans also have their concerns. One is why United’s full-backs, while strong defensively, were so ineffective going forward against Watford – in part because they had to support Harry McGuire and Victor Lindelof against a team which pressed high.
“We want players to attack and defend. Aaron has been absolutely fantastic. Luke is on his way back. That’s part of what we've been working on and we want to add that to our game.
"City have had to spend £200 million (Dh950.3m) on full-backs. Full-backs are so important, but I’m very happy with my full-backs in the squad. We’ve got some great youngsters coming through in Brandon [Williams} and Ethan [Laird]. Diogo [Dalot] is coming back and we’ve got experience in Ash. We’ve got different qualities in every single one of them.”
Solskjaer’s team lost at St James’ Park in October, one of five league defeats so far. A sixth would be unpalatable to fans still seething after Sunday’s loss.