After the disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend, Paul Pogba took centre stage again. This time, it was for his comments regarding the intent with which the side were sent out. Predictably his comments have drawn criticism from certain elements within the media. Vinnie Jones slaughtered Pogba for daring to question his manager’s approach on talksport amidst indifferent personal form.
“That would drive Mourinho mad as a manager. Just get on with it and play football! For players to keep coming out and staying stuff – do it on the pitch! Even the other players must get sick of it when the same players are in there moaning, you’d do something about it. He’s supposed to be one of the best players in the world – stop moaning and get on with it!”
Is Jones right, or is the deeper issue Pogba highlighted one that needed to be said? One common complaint has been the lack of attacking vigour to United’s play. At first glance, the basic stats seem to bear this out. United have the lowest goals scored in the top nine sides with nine. According to Understat, this is is almost exactly what their xG of 9.57 suggests their play deserves.
Paul Pogba’s criticism of United playing style
After the Wolves game, Pogba criticised the conservative approach the team adopted.
“There were a few more mistakes and not a lot of movement in front because we didn’t really put them in trouble. We are at home and we should play much better against Wolves. When we are at home we should attack, attack, attack. That’s Old Trafford. We are here to attack. I think teams are scared when they see Man United attacking and attacking. That was our mistake.”
Delve a little deeper, and the Frenchman’s comments stand up more firmly. Overall, just 25% of action (with or without possession) has taken place in their attacking third. Only four Premier League teams have a lower figure. At home, the percentage has remained almost identical (26%) suggesting little change in impetus. They rank seventh in shots attempted (15.3) and shots on target (5.7) at home.
The fear factor of facing a team is of course an intangible element that cannot be derived from numbers. The picture that is painted appear to back up the perception that United are no longer cut-throat winners. When it comes to criticism of Pogba’s form – especially when compared to his World Cup-winning performances – we need to look back over the last few seasons, including his Juventus days, to get the full picture.
Paul Pogba’s performances analysed
At Juventus, although he scored and assisted more than in any United season, his per-90 minutes average was worse. The arrival of Nemanja Matic last summer was supposed to release his attacking instincts, but he in fact recorded his lowest key passes per game (KeyP) of just 1.4. Perhaps the most telling statistic, however, is the number of dribbles per game (Drb) he has attempted. When he has the bit between his teeth and marauds forward, he is unstoppable, but he has recorded just 1.5 dribbles per game so far this season. Compared to last season, it is almost half.
Interestingly, he has been fouled and dispossessed more on average this season than the other campaigns. This tallies with his comment about having fewer options in front him than before, as he is having to protect the ball in the absence of suitable options to pass to.
The fact that he is still shooting as often as last season (2.8 shots per game) doesn’t reveal a great deal in itself. When his two goals are placed alongside an xG of 3.25, though, despite the small sample size of six matches, it suggests a lower quality of his finishing. Given his less frequent forays forward and his public comments, this could be down to frustration.
With the incongruous relationship between comments made in public and performances on the pitch, Pogba’s comments are understandable. It is abundantly clear he is not reaching his lofty best on a regular basis, but it also clear that neither are his club side. The classic chicken-and-egg debate will rage onwards over who is the cause, Pogba or the team. With the manner in which Jose Mourinho has openly criticised his team, perhaps it is time for his negativity to come under greater scrutiny.