Despite having never been embroiled in any scandals, controversies, or run-ins with the law, Paul Pogba is one of the most polarizing players in world football. Some love him and praise him as one of the game’s best players. Others say he’s overrated and isn’t worth the price. There’s a mountain of expectations for a guy who moved to a club like Manchester United and with the fee of €89million, you can see why. Fans want to see Pogba perform every week and fulfill his world-class potential. They expected Pogba to arrive at Old Trafford and light up the crowd with his impressive dribbling skills, they expected him to hit thunderbolts into the back of the net. After the highlights we saw of him during his time at Juventus, it was impossible to not be excited, and not to expect him to seamlessly transition to a new league with the same excellence we saw at Juventus. He was brilliant for the Italian giants, and alongside Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Marchisio, Pogba shined and did more than enough for Manchester United to break the world transfer record for him in the summer of 2016.
We’re approaching two years since Pogba Part 2 at Manchester United began, yet there’s still a lack of consensus surrounding the Frenchman. In his two seasons at Manchester United, Pogba tallied up 15 goals and 18 assists. He played an important role in United’s Europa League triumph to seal Champions League qualification in his first season, and, despite form issues, was a vital cog in United’s 2nd-place finish in his second season. Now in the World Cup, alongside N’Golo Kanté, Pogba has shown glimpses of what he is truly made of not merely in brief spurts, but in full matches.
Being the versatile player he is, it’s never been nailed down where exactly Pogba’s best position is. His energy is exceptional, as is his reading of the game. These attributes, along with his passing ability, make him an ideal “plug wherever and play” type of midfielder, but that doesn’t mean he will perform at his full potential no matter the formation. Pogba is best suited in a midfield attacking role or a box to box role, and if you limit his creativity in the role you play him in, you are ultimately hurting your team’s chances of winning. He needs the freedom to get forward and make things happen in the final third. We saw numerous times that the Manchester United attack was better when Pogba was further forward; even if he’s not scoring, Pogba is always looking to set up his teammates.
In this sequence, Manchester United are able to spread Everton wide and Pogba’s presence draws out Morgan Schneiderlin from the center of the park. Then, despite multiple defenders near the edge of the box, he’s able to zip a pass on the dime to the feet of Anthony Martial . It was a peach of a pass, as Pogba used the outside of his foot to flick the ball through all the Everton defenders and straight to Martial, who curled it into the back of the net to put United one goal ahead.
With Manchester United acquiring striker Romelu Lukaku from Everton, they not only got one of the best goalscorers in the Premier League, but also one of the smartest. Lukaku’s ability to make well timed runs to either drag defenders away from the play (see Belgium’s goal against Japan) or to set up chances for himself is impeccable. In this play, he makes a run to the box which only Pogba sees. Then Pogba lofts a ball over the top with his non-dominant foot and it’s still on point. The ball lands in front of Lukaku and he’s able to poke it home past the keeper for an easy goal.
Both of those goals are evident of Pogba’s playmaking ability and an even better reason as to why he should be pushing forward in attack more. But for his club and international teams, it’s not always the case. Pogba plays for two defensive-minded managers in José Mourinho and Didier Deschamps, with both always erring on the side of caution when it comes to moving players forward in attack. The philosophy dictates that it’s better to be always defensively compact than take risks offensively and possibly get hit on the counter. We have seen this countless times from Mourinho where sets his team up to be rock solid defensively. It leads to great upsets in knockout tournaments, especially when his team are underdogs, but it comes at a price: a lack of a offensive presence. At Manchester United, Pogba often plays in a pure midfield/CDM role in which he has to always account for making sure the back line isn’t left vulnerable before pushing forward.
Having Nemanja Matić play in the midfield has helped a bit in terms of letting Pogba go forward, as the Serbian can usually break up attacks on his own. Nonetheless, with Matić getting older, his ability to play at a faster speed has dropped tremendously. This causes Pogba and others to drop back more often they would like to. Instead of choosing to usually pair Matić with another midfielder, Man U chose to pair Pogba with Matić at times, and it has hindered the Frenchman in terms of effectiveness going forward. There were also times where Manchester United played him in a midfield trio, which allowed him to attack more, but it still hasn’t been enough. Part of it is Manchester United’s squad construction and another one is way the tactics are set up. Both contribute to make United more defensive oriented. Even when they are the favorites, like in their UCL tie against Sevilla. Manchester United have played very negative and defensive football. Nonetheless, as Pogba has proven this tournament, even when pigeon-holed into a deeper role, he can still make it work with the right players.
By: Vijay Vemu