It has never just been about price. Even before the signatures were signed on the dotted line to make Paul Pogba’s record-breaking move to Manchester United official in the summer of 2016, talk had turned to how the Frenchman would and could fit into Jose Mourinho’s plans at Old Trafford.
Squawka took an extensive look at where the former Juventus player had performed best for club and country prior to his sale in July and concluded – without surprising anyone – that the answer was a free role similar to the one carved out for him over on the left in Turin.
With Patrice Evra bombing on from full-back, Pogba was allowed to roam from central areas and run into spaces behind his side’s forward line. Liberated from his defensive responsibilities, he was the moving part of a three-man midfield finely balanced to take control of the middle of the pitch while allowing their prodigious match-winner the latitude to take opponents apart as he saw fit, charging into channels, marauding through the final third and dribbling through defences.
Mourinho has toyed with the giving the France international a similar role at United, although he also appeared determined to persist with the idea of deploying Pogba in a two-man midfield, alongside Ander Herrera. Since his return to Manchester – four years after leaving to join Juventus as a teenager – the 23-year-old has made 15 appearances in central midfield, 15 appearances in a deeper, more defensive midfield role and four appearances in a more advanced position, as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, across the Premier League and Europa League.
He has scored a total of six goals and created four assists, two goals and two assists coming from central midfield, three goals and two assists from deep and one goal and no assists from behind the striker, usually Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in the hole.
Pogba’s record in this role could have been more impressive had the Swede managed to take chances laid on for him by the midfielder in games such as the 0-0 stalemate against Liverpool at Anfield. It wasn’t the only example of the Frenchman putting an opportunity to score on a plate for his teammates only to see their finishing let him down.
Compared with his previous seasons in Italy, the midfielder is actually creating more chances per game. However, United are ranked 18th in the league for converting their chances, and rock bottom as the worst side in the division for putting away so-called “big chances”; those goalscoring opportunities where a player should be reasonably expected to score due to being in a one-on-one scenario or from close range.
Yet regardless of where on the pitch he is set out to play, there is a degree of nuance that must be taken into account, and isn’t covered by counting up the number of games played as a defensive midfielder, central midfielder or as an attacking midfielder behind the striker.
At Chelsea, Mourinho gave Cesc Fabregas a free role in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Nemanja Matic charged with putting in the leg work to cover for the Spaniard as he floated around the pitch, soaking up possession and looking to play the killer ball. No player has completed more through balls in the Premier League this season than Pogba.
On the other hand, the Frenchman has been played in a three-man midfield for club and country over the last nine months but with a more disciplined role to play, negating the benefits he enjoyed from a similar set-up at Juventus, yet it is also clear than his manager expects the 23-year-old to take the initiative when it comes to creating chances.
The emphasis of United’s play this season, with Ibrahimovic up front and Pogba in midfield, has been on trying to exploit their exceptional qualities and attributes as individuals, rather than focusing on finding balance and more tactical solutions from the team as a collective, like Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
Pogba has responded to his billing by completing more take ons than any other central or deep-lying midfielder in the English top flight, and is second only to Christian Benteke for duels won, with the Belgian striker’s tally inflated by the amount of successful headers he rises above his opponents to claim.
Given how fashionable it has become for teams to play with a three-man defence this year, perhaps the Frenchman would thrive in a similar space to Dele Alli or Eden Hazard between midfield and attack in some sort of 3-4-2-1 formation?
That may be one idea that will be forever limited to on-paper theoriising, but even so, those positions work for Spurs and Chelsea due to the space they can open up in the final third up against other common shapes, rather than any magical, inherent properties within those numbers. It’s all about the match up. Pogba doesn’t need a back three to take similar advantage of his opponents’ weak points.
His teammates and how they play around him are extremely important. The Frenchman needs to be the key component in a moving machine rather than lumbered with the ball and few options to call upon. At first, Mourinho paired him with Marouane Fellaini who has too conservative with his passing, leading to Pogba becoming bogged down with dictating play too deep to be effective. Once the more ambitious and incisive Herrera finally replaced the Belgian as his side’s primary ball-winner, his illustrious partner’s play improved.
Similarly, the reintegration of Henrikh Mkhitaryan came to be a boon to Pogba too after the Armenian initially seemed to be in competition as the focus of the team’s build-up play. After a run of games, however, he soon became another useful alternative to take on the ball and distract the opposition in order to allow United’s deeper-lying playmaker more freedom to do work off the ball.
Bournemouth may have come away from Old Trafford with a draw, much to the disappointment of Mourinho and the fans who had expected to see their team punish Eddie Howe’s unsteady defence to finally push on into the top four, but there were signs there too, with the return of Luke Shaw, that the Englishman could do for Pogba what Evra once did down the left for Juvenus, with Anthony Martial too helping to weaponise that flank.
That may be the key going forward for Pogba. With rumours of more high-end signings coming in the summer to further complicate the picture in attack, a three-man midfield seems unlikely. A shift to playing 3-4-2-1 would be very un-Mourinho. Moving the Frenchman out wide, as Steven Gerrard once was for Liverpool and England, seems like a compromise rather than a solution.
Instead, as was the case with Fabregas at Chelsea, Mourinho and United must ensure all the right moving parts are put into place around Pogba – the surging overlaps of Shaw, the inside runs of Martial, the decoy dribbles of Mkhitaryan, the diligence of Herrera and the link-up play of Ibrahimovic – that he can play his game and justify the hype.
He is not a defensive midfielder, nor is he a box-to-box player in the traditional sense, or an out-and-out attacking midfielder, but a rather unique proposition whose range of abilities encompass aspects of all these roles and positions. It remains the case that Pogba is at his best when he is given space and freedom instead of being shackled down. Of course, he must also show that he deserves these privilege.
Too often, he becomes flustered in the crunch moments, over-elaborated upon his game rather than finding the clarity required to turn a match in a moment or simply lost his head when United have needed him to show his coolness under pressure to make the difference. He had a day to forget at Wembley in the EFL Cup final and not for the first time he looked ineffective against Bournemouth, who held out with 10 men for 45 minutes to leave Old Trafford with a point and deny United an important home win.
All of this should come with age. Pogba is, after all, still just 23. He must continue to learn and grow and gain wisdom. United, in turn, must become a team good enough and strong enough to allow their star midfielder to play his own way, with fewer defensive responsibilities. It remains on the player himself to prove he is worthy of not just transfer fee but such special treatment too.