Paul’s Plight

Stem cells are special. If you do not know why, it is because they have the ability to become any different number of cells through differentiation.

Paul Pogba is special. If you do not know why, it is because he has the ability to become any type of midfielder he wants because of the different sets of footballing attributes he has within his locker. A tall, imposing figure that is still capable of the most delicate plays because of the dexterity in his feet is the simplest way to capture the essence of which the French-born Manchester United player is able to produce on his best days. Ignoring the fact that the day it will happen is unbeknownst to everyone until he actually plays, his definitive position and role is still shrouded in mystery to a certain extent.

As much as this is a positive for his manager, as he can provide different sets of solutions for different tactical set ups, on an individual level, this could keep back Pogba from reaching the level that has been expected of him since he first signed for Manchester United back in 2009. He is so good to the point where it may actually be bad for him, in terms of progressing as a footballer. He only needs to look at his current compatriot in Wayne Rooney to see how being a jack of all trades and almost a master of them all can have such a detrimental effect on individual aspect, consensus of pundits & fans and the accolades such as the team and player of the year awards, of his career.

So is there a role capable of getting the best of all of Pogba’s attributes, even if he would have to learn how to do the jobs required in that role that he is not as good at?

The regista is a now fabled role in football and Pogba has occupied it on occasion, for his former club, Juventus and national team, France. Pirlo was once benched during the Turin derby so Pogba deputised Italy’s old grandmaster’s role and according to Sam Tighe, he performed the role admirably. Nevertheless, the most recent occurrence of this was during the 2016 UEFA European Championship when Didier Deschamps took off N’Golo Kante for Kingsley Coman after being 1-0 down to the Republic of Ireland during the last-16 knockout tie. The shape changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 that paired Pogba with Blaise Matiudi. It was the former’s task to find the attacking players, namely Antonie Griezmann and Olivier Giroud in threatening positions by delivering passes through the lines. He was already France’s best player in the first half and he was the reason why France were much more able to find gaps with Ireland’s deep block in the second half, culminating in a 2-1 win.

Pogba’s creativity is well documented now given what he has shown at Man Utd, with the forwards failing to dispatch an incredible amount of chances he has made but he showed he was able to start attacks off in the first phase of build up by breaking defensive teams. He would occupy the same role, with good performances until the final vs Portugal where he lost his way, along with the team losing to an Eder winner.

The role that most have seen Pogba play is one of a shuttler, when he lined up beside Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. While Pogba and the latter were tasked with covering for the Italian, Pogba was the more adventurous of the two, in that he would be inclined to find space in the wider position thus vacating his midfield berth to receive the ball and then drive infield into the space that he really should be standing in. Pogba was doing this when he first came to Man Utd but no longer does so as he has learned that the wide area is already occupied enough with a full back and winger, compared to just the wing back in Turin. Defensively, he had to be covered for this positioning and Kwadwo Asamoah did it from LWB at times when he first came. He and the Chilean still provided the legs that Pirlo could not provide and give him defensive cover, despite having a three-man defence behind.

However, Vidal moved onto Bayern Munich for the 2015/16 season, as Pirlo had also moved to America after the CL final defeat to Barcelona. Pogba was given the chief creative role in the midfield. In terms of (NP)G+A{non-penalty goals and assists}, he rose from .37 between 12/13 to 14/15 in the league to .59 in the 2015/16 Serie A season. He was closer to the goal and alleviated of defensive responsibility during his last season at the Old Lady

Such is the problems in the middle of the park for the Red Devils; Pogba has had to fulfil all three roles throughout the season as Jose Mourinho has searched for the right balance, not just in midfield but also across the pitch. His best form came in the months between the start of November to the middle of January, where Man Utd stuck almost exclusively to a 4-3-3. When it was first used in the league, vs Swansea, the Portuguese manager asserted his confidence in the midfield by calling Carrick the ‘stability’, Fellaini the ‘balance’ and the Frenchman the ‘freedom’. Before, he had been used in a B2B role within a midfield pair that exacerbated the immaturity in Pogba’s defensive awareness and since January has been him having to collect the ball of the back four to get the team to progress up the pitch. In fact, any type of ingenuity in midfield, whether it be breaking lines from deep, dribbling past opponents to open up space or delivering the final ball for the forwards has been laid bare at the feet of him.

Chiellini’s comparison of Pogba to being ‘LeBron James of football’ and Juventus’s ‘Usain Bolt’ holds so much weight because as he later added on, he allows you to play in a certain way because of everything he can bring. He is not perfect, far from it in fact. He is at his best when you accentuate what he has bring to the team defensively. Although France won the semi-final last summer, Pogba’s continued failure to shuffle across to block passing lanes when France were in defensive organisation could have provided Germany with opportunities to find space in front of the French defence. But all most will remember from that game is Pogba embarrassing Shkodran Mustafi before delivering a cross that eventually ended in Griezmann adding his and the team’s second goal. His willingness to hold onto the ball for too long is something of an annoyance that many a United fan can attest to this season. The main reason for him doing it is so he can turn his opponent (a shot he had vs Saint Etienne in the first leg provides the evidence why this can be so effective) but in the Premier League, quite often he is quickly surrounded by 2, 3 or 4 players. This eventually results in a turnover, which can just happen generally with him due to his overall sloppiness when overdoing it

So where would be best for Paul Pogba in this United team? Looking at past players of his ilk and skill set in the league, you would think of something between Lampard, under Pogba’s now current manager, from 2004-07 and Yaya Toure under Mancini from 2010-13 would suit him best. An added advantage that they had over him was that they did not line up beside a human leg weight like the one Pogba has been afforded all too many times this season. You know whom I am talking about. But, quite frankly, Paul Pogba needs to grow up. He is inconsistent in his performances, immature in how he performs his midfield role and lax when his team needs him to be the driving force, although he has been better at the last aspect this season. Yes, Pogba is special and so are stem cells but eventually, everything needs to become specialised. In the human body and in football.

Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images
By: @MrScripto