When Paul Pogba was bought by Manchester United for almost £90 million, a record transfer fee spent by an English club, much was expected of him. He became of the highest paid players at the club, earning £260,000 per week! The Red Devils were keen to resign their former academy player and were willing to offer him a massive wage increase to secure his signature.
He developed a significant reputation in Serie A, winning titles in four consecutive seasons for Juventus, Pogba was expected to do more than just play football well. It was suggested Man United was in need of a creative force to break the shackles of dull football of the post-Ferguson era.
Pogba with his eye for a pass, his ability to win a game single-handedly and his charismatic presence, was symbolic of United’s supposed new era. To listen to comments and punditry on Pogba, one would be forgiven for thinking the Frenchman has failed. Given he is paid £260,000 per week, too much is expected from him. In addition, it can be argued Mourinho isn’t playing him consistently in the right position.
Man United have tended to use two formations this season, the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1. Pogba has played three roles within these positions: as a left-sided central midfielder in the 4-3-3 or a right-sided defensive midfielder in the 4-2-3-1. He has a different role in the two main positions, as a central midfielder or as a deeper lying, more defensive midfielder.
Playing deeper in the pivot with Nemanja Matic, Pogba has defensive responsibilities and is expected to create from farther back with long-range passing into the wide spaces, or directly to Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku can then burst forward onto the pass off the shoulder, or hold the ball up and lay off to an attacking midfielder pushing up from the hole or cutting inside.
Matic is far from a pure anchoring player and also gets forward albeit with less dynamism than Pogba, he also has a good range of passing and this leaves United with two deep playmakers both of whom are strong but not pure defensive midfielders. If Pogba pushes up to join the attack from the 4-2-3-1, Matic can be left isolated especially as United’s fullbacks also push high and without Eric Bailly in central defence, United struggle to cover all the space vacated by Pogba surges.
The role Pogba occupies in the 4-3-3 affords him greater license to attack. This is for two reasons, firstly it still leaves a double pivot in midfield of Matic and one other, this is especially solid if the other player is Herrera. The second is that Pogba is pushing into space rather than seeking to move into an area already occupied by a number 10. United’s 4-3-3 see’s the wide men generally cutting inside as they can do so without congesting the space in front of the box and this is where Pogba is able to burst forward, deliver a pass or as against Manchester City, score goals with his late runs.
Intuitively then one would suppose that Pogba is best in this central but more forward role, covered by two other midfielders. Looking at Pogba statistics, it’s clear that he has had a productive season when compared with previous seasons. His goals per game ratio has been stable since his first full season at Juventus but this season has seen him register more assists and manage more key passes per 90 minutes.
Defensively Pogba makes fewer tackles in the 4-3-3 which one would expect but his interceptions per 90 are not much different, suggesting that his defensive worth when pushing up from the 4-3-3 is actually higher than is generally appreciated. It’s also worth noting that of the 22 League games Pogba has started, United’s record is better with him in central midfield than it is in a deeper role.
The question is less about where Pogba is best and more about what he can do that others in the squad cannot. He is the sort of player that one can construct a team around and Jose Mourinho should consider this when working on his summer transfer list. Pogba should be free to grab games and run them, and Mourinho needs to work out how best to let him do this. If he doesn’t then, he will be sold to help reduce the huge wage bill.