Manchester United and the Premier League’s record signing Paul Pogba has divided opinion since his sensational £89m return to Old Trafford in 2016.
The general consensus seems to be that the French international is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Since starting work with Jose Mourinho, he has been deployed in a midfield two, on the left of a midfield three, out on the left wing and as a direct number ten. He’s yet to nail down a consistent role.
Perhaps it’s time then to analyse Pogba’s career to date, and attempt to find a definitive answer on where the 24-year-old is most effective.
Beginnings at Juventus:
Youngest players in a FIFPro Team of the Year:
Lionel Messi (20 in 2007) 🔵🔴
Paul Pogba (22 in 2015) ⚫️⚪️
Sergio Ramos (22 in 2008) ⚪️⚪️ pic.twitter.com/b6uiVL6W5d
— Promising Young (@PromisingYoung) August 4, 2017
Pogba flourished under the tutelage of the now Chelsea manager Antonio Conte while in Turin; managing to secure a position in the FIFA Team of the Year in 2015, at just 22-years-old.
During that spectacular season in which Juve won a fourth consecutive league title and reached the Champions League final, Pogba became a sensation with his frightening attacking plays. He was prominently deployed on the left of a midfield three, allowing him to express himself on the ball and maraud forward into threatening areas freely.
The protection from midfield enforcer Arturo Vidal, along with the sheer control and positional nuance of Andrea Pirlo, meant that Pogba was protected at all times and had total freedom to showcase his quick feet, flair and incisive passing in the final third.
He was also occasionally given the attacking role on the left of a midfield four in his final season with the club and flourished in the role; using his physical prowess to dominate his defensive counterparts.
The result was that Pogba topped the league’s assist charts with 12, while netting eight league goals that season.
Having now spent two seasons at Old Trafford, prominently playing in a deep-lying playmaker role, it’s safe to say it isn’t quite bringing out the very best in Pogba and pundits seem unanimous in claiming the role simply isn’t right for the calibre of player he is.
Partnered along-side Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and now Nemanja Matic, it’s clear to see that quite frankly too much defensive responsibility is put on Pogba.
It could be the case that United are currently lacking in midfield options that possess a similar array of passing to the Frenchman, or even the ability to carry the ball past a man. As a result he unfortunately has to bide his time until reinforcements arrive.
They signed Matic to free Pogba, now both of them are in detention
— Alli O.G (@Onflood_) December 26, 2017
A recently frustrated Paul Scholes argued on BT Sports (via Daily Mail): “No-one in England should be getting near him, but he is being asked to do a role he is not comfortable in.
“You have to say the manager has to take responsibility for that. Is the manager sending them out not playing the way they want to play? I don’t know.”
Left of a Three:
Pogba has himself revealed his preference for a more advanced position in midfield, specifically highlighting the left side in a three-man unit in the middle of the park, though he is willing to sacrifice this spot for the sake of his team-mates:
“I would say midfielder on the left. If you play a three I can play on the right of left, but I feel more comfortable to play on my left,” Pogba told Sky Sports (via Mail Online). “I can do it [holding midfield], but I feel more comfortable a bit higher.”
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then, to see Pogba’s recent resurgence upon the change of system in United’s 2-0 away victory at Everton on New Years Day.
Mourinho was forced to play a 4-3-3 instead of his customary 4-2-3-1 due to a host of injuries, and as a result of this, Pogba put in his best performance of the season to date.
The physical midfielder was shifted to the left of a midfield three and showcased all the qualities Scholes had eluded to; constantly threatening the box from the left-side and bagging two assists for his efforts.
Thierry Henry was very impressed with Man Utd star Paul Pogba's display against Everton. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/myZpnPdkxC
— Goal (@goal) January 2, 2018
The level of end product shown throughout the match in this forced position was accompanied by a complete display of powerful-running, flair, elegant passing and intelligent movement. The performance alone can be seen as explicit evidence to support those that claim Pogba is the “complete midfielder.”
It would appear that he is an entirely different player in a midfield three. He is capable of spraying long-range passes all day from deep-lying midfield, but in the final third he can really hurt opponents and looks worthy of the lofty price-tag.
The only issue with a straight switch of system, is that it relies heavily on Ander Herrera turning his own questionable form around until Mourinho can bring in new personnel in the future.