Paul Pogba has yet to figure out his best role for Manchester United.
Paul Pogba has had a mixed experience at Manchester United. The $116.4 million fee the Red Devils paid Juventus to bring him back to their club in 2016 has been scrutinized and debated time and time again, and unfortunately for the French-born midfielder he hasn’t put an end to those deliberations.
One of the more recent debates surrounding Pogba is which position best exploits his ability. Should he sit deep in front of the back-line, orchestrating with more defensive obligations? Or should he push up more into the creative, box-to-box type role that helped him excel at Juventus?
Pogba has the natural gifts and well-developed skills to play virtually any position on the field, which complicates this question. Featuring mostly as a classic central midfielder in his first season in Manchester, Pogba led Manchester United to the UEFA Europa League title, being named the competition’s player of the season after scoring three goals and registering one assist in 15 Europa League appearances. In those 15 matches, Pogba was effective in the attack as highlighted by these stats from Squawka.com, in which he created 22 scoring chances, the second most for United. He was especially valuable in the air, using his 6’3” frame to win 59% of his aerial duels; and he was a fantastic facilitator, averaging the 10th most passes per game at 71.5.
However, the debate remains whether the holding mid position he played in for most of this competition fits him best. Taking a closer look at one of the matches that Pogba could have had a bigger impact in, against Russian club Rostov in the Round of 16, some of his struggles are evident.
These are the types of performances that raise concerns about whether Pogba is suited to be the team’s go-to guy. This might be because he doesn’t seem to have a set position, dropping deep at times because his team lacks a great facilitator and never really posing a threat in the attack despite being the most creative player on the pitch. In this particular match, Pogba played as one of three central midfielders in a 3-5-2 formation, but was charged with playing as the attacking mid with Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini sitting behind him. Playing more advanced in this match also didn’t work out for Pogba because his shot was inaccurate and he had a few too many sloppy touches. His love of taking people on was also problematic during this match because he coughed up possession four times and he had three dribble attempts but didn’t beat any defenders with them.
In the Premier League, Pogba worked to readjust himself to the hectic pace that he left behind when he went to Italy. Although Pogba appeared to be more physically prepared to play in the Premier League style of play than during his first stint at United, getting accustomed to the fast pace of the league seemed to catch Pogba off-guard. He only had four assists and five goals in 30 appearances, but averaged 1.9 key passes per 90 minutes, good for 10th among midfielders with 10 or more appearances in the league last season.
For a player who came back to Manchester for such an exorbitant fee these numbers fall short of what you would expect from Pogba. The key passing numbers are nice but still something he could improve on moving forward because United need him to be a creator.
One of the factors that have influenced Pogba’s production is undoubtedly the manager who stepped in and brought him back to the club: Jose Mourinho. Known for his flow-killing, soul-crushing, bus-parking approach to tactics, Mourinho was clearly enticed by how dominant Pogba can be and couldn’t resist paying the fee to get him. Mourinho saw someone who could be the ultimate enforcer in the middle of the pitch and that is the way he has tried to use Pogba.
The problem is Pogba isn’t a straight ball winner like his countryman N’Golo Kante and he can’t make up for the faulty defending of Manchester United’s center backs.
In looking at where Pogba has lined up this season in the Premier League according to transfermarkt.com he has played 19 matches at center mid, three at defensive mid and one at attacking mid in all competitions. It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where he played in a given match because Pogba has such a high work rate that he will pop up all over the place, and the instructions Mourinho gives him always seem to vary. This season, Pogba’s key passes average is still 1.9, which doesn’t stack up with the top players in that department such as more attack-minded players Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas (4) or Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (3.3), and he also averages the 13th most unsuccessful touches per 90 at 2.2.
Pogba stacks up better against his counterparts at the holding mid spot when it comes to offensive production, but then again he doesn’t have the same defensive statistics as those players.
In comparing him to Kante, the reigning England Football Association’s player of the season, Pogba averages far fewer tackles per game this season at 1.3 compared to Kante’s 3.4 and is also well-behind on interceptions at 0.9 compared to his countryman’s 2.0 per game.
Take United’s recent 1-0 loss to Newcastle for example. In this match Pogba was asked to play more defensively, which doesn’t make too much sense because United needed more creativity, and this wasn’t something he was too comfortable with. Lining up in a 4-2-3-1, the formation Mourinho has utilized the most this season with Pogba alongside Nemanja Matic and behind Jesse Lingard.
United failed to create many scoring chances at St. James’ Park, and Pogba was substituted in the 66th minute after sloppy passing and an overall abysmal display as United lost. Pogba managed only one successful dribble move, a statistic he used to flourish in when he played at Juve, where he averaged almost three per game, and he only had one successful tackle.
This makes me think that Pogba is best served playing as a more box-to-box midfielder because he likes to move all over the pitch as indicated in this heat map from United’s recent 3-0 win against Stoke City.
Two more factors that have to be considered in this debate are the rise of Jesse Lingard taking away minutes from him at attacking mid, as well as a long-term injury that held Pogba out early this season. Lingard has forced himself into Mourinho’s side regularly in the 2017-18 campaign with some magical displays and a newfound scoring prowess.
Used on occasion as an outside mid, Lingard has played more often in that CAM role. The problem is Lingard provides little help on defending in the midfield, so Pogba can’t push up as much as he might want to like he does with France.
The debate remains whether Pogba would be better suited to play in Lingard’s position, but I think playing him in an advanced role would hurt United more than it would help. Although his defensive instincts lack at times, United need someone like Pogba to bridge the defense to the attack, so playing in front of a holding mid like Matic but behind the attackers would best suit United.
Another factor that hurt Pogba’s chances of finding form early in this season was the hamstring/thigh injury he suffered in a Champions League match against FC Basel in September. This sidelined him for 12 matches, and injuries always seem to hamper players’ production when they try to make a comeback midseason.
For all the fancy haircuts he gets and the dancing he does it’s nice to see such a great player be happy on the pitch; but at some point, the production will need to pick up if Pogba is to make it in Manchester. Regardless of what his best position might be, it is tough to see Mourinho not allow Pogba to step into that inventive role that he used to thrive in.
Mourinho’s tactics seem to be more about not letting the other team score rather than playing beautiful soccer, which is why he uses Pogba in more defensive roles. But for Pogba, being able to roam freely as a center mid helping out in defense and attack will always be his best fit.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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