By Callum Rice-Coates, Football Whispers
So far, it has been another season of frustration and inconsistency for Paul Pogba and a familiar question has been raised: How can United get the best out of him?
The answers are still proving elusive. Since his return to United from Juventus in 2016, for what was then a world-record fee of $116million, Pogba has shown glimpses of his enormous potential. It has always been clear that he is a uniquely talented player. But he is not a natural fit for every system.
He has struggled, in particular, when asked to play in a midfield two in José Mourinho’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system. Alongside Nemanja Matić, the Frenchman is expected to anchor the midfield to competently perform his defensive duties.
Pogba’s discipline has been frequently questioned. “I did a spell coaching the reserve team when it included Pogba, [Jesse] Lingard, [Ravel] Morrison and we played him higher up the field in attacking areas," Darren Fletcher said in a recent interview on Sky Sports.
“We felt like he was the one who would win us game, coupled with the fact he was ill-disciplined in the middle of the park. We didn’t think he was disciplined enough for the reserve team, never mind the first team at that time.”
Mourinho, it seems, has recognised this. He has, in recent weeks, chosen to field a midfield three, and this has freed Pogba up somewhat. When playing in a two, the Frenchman has looked shackled, unable to influence games.
A solution hasn’t been found yet, though. The Premier League is yet to see the Paul Pogba that performed so consistently for Juventus, or the Paul Pogba that played such a significant part in France’s FIFA World Cup win this summer.
In both of these teams, Pogba played in a midfield three. For Juventus, he was alongside Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, whose presence allowed him to roam forward without the need to be overly concerned with defensive work. That is crucial. Despite the assumption – perhaps because of his physicality – that he is robust defensively, Pogba’s strength lies in his creativity, his vision and guile.
Discipline, if Pogba is played in his favoured role, is not really an issue. That he has regularly been fielded in a position that doesn’t suit him should not be confused with a lack of desire to help out his teammates.
The stats back up the assertion that Pogba is better in a three. Last season, when playing in a three, he took on more shots per 90 minutes (3.45) and had more assists per 90 (0.53) than when in a midfield two (2.77 and 0.36).
Manchester United have benefitted from this, too. Their record last season with Pogba playing in a three was better (eight wins, one draw, one defeat) than with Pogba in a two (seven wins, three draws, two defeats).
While at Juventus, Pogba thrived in a more advanced role. He reached double figures for goals and assists in both of his final two seasons in Turin. Whether he will reach such heights at United will depend largely upon whether Mourinho is willing to truly unshackle him.
Recent signs are promising. Pogba has a goal and two assists in his last three games, in which he played alongside Matić and Fred. Mourinho’s inherent cautiousness, though, shows little sign of going away.
There is still a rigidity to United’s game, a lack of expression. Pogba is energised when he has the freedom to improvise, so Mourinho, having acknowledged the need to play him in a midfield three, might encourage him to venture into the final third with more regularity.
“I like to see him in the final third and creating things," said Fletcher. “He played for Juventus [on the left] and I spoke before about his connection with [Anthony] Martial. Pogba can easily drift out wide. He can also get in the box, he’s a big lad. I’d love to see him with a bit more freedom to express himself.”
Perhaps an influential performance on Wednesday night, when Pogba returns to Juventus in the Champions League, will help him on the way to a successful season. United were dominated in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, and will need to play with far more control if they are to avoid a similar outcome in Turin.
In Pogba, if he is properly utilised, they have a player who can dictate a game. Just don’t ask him to play in a midfield two.
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