One player and one storyline dominated the buildup to Manchester United’s season: Paul Pogba and his apparent unhappiness at Manchester United. The newly-crowned world champion was at the top of his game during the tournament in Russia, controlling the midfield and stamping his authority on the team, both on and off the pitch. He crowned these displays with a sumptuous goal in the final against Croatia, and while one would have expected Jose Mourinho to be pleased with his midfielder, that praise came tempered with some ill-disguised criticism:
“I don’t think it’s about us getting the best out of him, it’s about him giving the best he has to give…I think the World Cup is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give [their] best. Why? Because it’s closed for a month, where he can only think about football. Where he’s with his team on the training camp, completely isolated from the external world, where they focus just on football, where the dimensions of the game can only motivate.”
It was clear what Mourinho was getting at: Pogba played well at the World Cup because he did not have the off-the-pitch distractions that come with club football, and that his game would have to be subservient to the team’s needs if he wanted to thrive at United. This was more than a little unjustified, as Pogba rarely played in a structure that could support his talents last season. He thrived for France because of the way Didier Deschamps set up his side, to allow Pogba the freedom and responsibility to play his game while providing him with the support he needs to be able to pull it off.
Mourinho’s comments set off a frenzy of speculation, with Barcelona rumoured to be ready to offer Pogba an escape from Manchester. While it was always fanciful to think that United would let their star midfielder leave only two years after reacquiring him, his role in the team would be under even greater scrutiny, especially after such a stellar World Cup. The opening match of the season against Leicester provided a surprise opportunity for such an analysis, given that the Frenchman had only returned to training four days previously. Mourinho even seemed to hold out an olive branch by handing Pogba the captain’s armband in Antonio Valencia’s absence, and he lit up Old Trafford with a superb display and a goal from the penalty spot. We will now look at the factors behind this performance, the similarities with his role for France, and how this could be sustained over the course of the entire season.
Better Midfield Structure Allows Pogba to Shine
Paul Pogba is a player who flourishes when placed within a formation and shape that supports him. He was at his best at Juventus when playing on the left of a three-man midfield in a 3-5-2 system; this gave him enough freedom to join attacking moves, while there was enough defensive cover to allow him to focus almost exclusively on his strengths, which are undoubtedly, going forward. While Deschamps started the tournament with a three-man midfield in a 4-3-3, he ditched it midway through the opening fixture against Australia and moved to a lopsided 4-4-2, which remained the system of choice throughout the tournament.
It was the implementation of this system that allowed Pogba to shine – he had N’Golo Kante, perhaps the best defensive midfielder in the world alongside him to do the dirty work in midfield, while the nominal left winger was usually Blaise Matuidi, a central midfielder by trade who provided energy, discipline and work-rate, often tucking in and becoming a third central midfielder. This platform allowed Pogba to step up and take on the creative burden without having to worry too much about his defensive responsibilities. This was not to say that he shirked them: Pogba made 2.96 interceptions and 2.02 tackles per 90 minutes at the World Cup. Rather, this augmented his attacking output, as the Frenchman delivered 1.4 key passes per 90 during the tournament, clearly demonstrating his role in setting up his teammates.
The touch maps above are from France’s World Cup games against Peru and Uruguay, while the one below is from United’s opening league fixture of the season against Leicester City.
Notice how the majority of Pogba’s touches are just ahead of the half-line in all three of these games; not exactly in a ‘quarterback’ role, but tasked with linking midfield and attack from a deeper position. This is something that Mourinho seems to have already taken on board from the World Cup, as shown by the images below:
This season, it looks like Mourinho is going to use a 4-3-3 far more regularly, with the arrival of Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk a major factor behind this. This should allow Pogba the freedom he needs to dictate games and was quite evident during the Leicester game, as the images above showed.
Contrast these to United’s midfield in their defeat to Tottenham at Wembley last season. It was the beginning of Mourinho’s dissatisfaction with Pogba, as he substituted him during the game and was visibly annoyed with the Frenchman. However, looking at just a couple of images from that game, it is clear that there was little Pogba could have done in such a set-up.
Admittedly, this is from just one game, but this pattern was repeated throughout the season, where Pogba suffered by playing in a midfield two without support.
The Frenchman took up similar positions in Russia as well, and this bodes well for Manchester United, as long as they manage to maintain this structure around Pogba
Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho certainly have a strained relationship, and there definitely seems to be a sense that only one of them will survive at Old Trafford in the long-term. Presently, however, they are both going nowhere, and thus have to find a way to work with each other. Mourinho seems to have realized that Pogba is crucial to maintaining harmony in the dressing-room, as well as control on the pitch, and early indications are that he is going to build the side around the Frenchman. The Leicester game was just one game, and sterner tests await, but if Mourinho sticks to this system and structure, Paul Pogba is set to have his best season in Manchester United red.