What is Paul Pogba’s best role for United?
Four years since his record-breaking move from Juventus to Manchester United’s Theatre of Dreams, the question of where Paul Pogba’s best position lies remains a debate amongst United fans.
PAUL POGBA’S UNITED NUMBERS SO FAR The Frenchman’s signing was a statement of intent with a potential link-up with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho leaving fans on the edge of their seats and actually expectant for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club. United were ultimately disappointing in the league that season with their failure to convert draws to wins costing them as they went on to secure a sixth-placed finish, but the overall setup under Jose proved to be a lot more enterprising than the dire football United played under Louis Van Gaal. Paul Pogba finished the 2016/2017 season with 15 goal contributions(9 goals and 6 assists) in all competitions with 4,350 minutes played over the course of the season where he was largely utilized as a part of a midfield two alongside Carrick or Herrera or in a midfield three featuring the aforementioned duo or Fellaini. United went on to win the EFL Cup and UEFA Europa League in Paul Pogba’s first season but there was a feeling of hope amongst the United fanbase that there was a whole lot more to come from the Frenchman.
The following offseason United paid their rivals Chelsea €40m for the services of Serbian defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic who many hoped would lift Pogba off some of his defensive responsibilities that seemed to weigh him down the previous season and allow him to be more influential in the attacking third. In the 2017/2018 season, United finished second in the league with 81 points amassed the highest since Sir Alex left the club and even till date. They were knocked out of the UCL in the Round of 16 against Sevilla and in the EFL Cup by Bristol City and there were also losses to Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup and to Chelsea in the FA Cup final as United ended the season trophyless. Paul Pogba had a slightly better season on a personal note with the midfielder ending the season with 18 goal contributions(6 goals and 12 assists) in just 2879 minutes, but at this point, there were already talks of strain in his relationship with Jose Mourinho and he was even benched for United’s Round of 16 tie against Sevilla only coming on as a substitute in both legs. His standout performance for United till date came against Manchester City as he scored a brace to give United a 3:2 win and deny the citizens the trophy on Derby Day. The 2018/2019 season remains Paul Pogba’s standout season as a United player with the midfielder racking up a very impressive 27 goal contributions(16 goals and 11 assists) in 4012 minutes but the lack of trophies overshadowed what was a very good season for the Frenchman with the departure of Jose Mourinho and the subsequent arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lifting the mood and yet again leaving United fans hopeful for what was to come from Paul Pogba. A 4:0 win against Chelsea on the opening day of the 2019/2020 season saw Pogba lay on two assists for his teammates playing in a slightly withdrawn role as a double pivot with Ole seemingly ditching the 4-3-3 he largely utilized in the previous season after taking over from Jose Mourinho. Paul Pogba was unavailable for large parts of the season with injuries ruling him out and only found a consistent run in the team after the restart as United went on to finish third. He ended the season with a goal and four assists in 1,608 minutes.
HOW DOES OLE SOLVE THE PAUL POGBA CONUNDRUM?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown a clear preference for the 4-2-3-1 with Paul Pogba operating alongside one of McTominay, Fred or Matic. United were quite impressive with this system after the restart with Pogba being primarily tasked with ball progression and with chance creation being secondary in this deep-lying role. The system although having its pros as it enables Paul Pogba to drive with the ball from deep and also look to dictate the tempo of the game and make line-breaking passes to the forwards, it also has its cons as Pogba isn’t press resistant and he can get caught on the ball in dangerous areas and lacks the defensive awareness to snuff out danger and hence becomes more of a liability than an asset in a deeper role. So what are the Alternatives for United?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has deployed this system twice so far this season(RB Leipzig and Arsenal). United were brilliant against Leipzig with this setup as they effectively shut down the space available to the German side in between the lines and looked to allow Leipzig funnel their possession out wide. Only four days later, United struggled utilizing the same setup with a failure to progress the ball from deep and Arsenal effectively man-marking Pogba and Bruno and nullifying United’s threat in the process. As much as the 4-4-2 diamond allows for United to have both Pogba and Bruno as starters and helps compensate for their lack of a specialist right-winger, it also has its cons as it leaves the wide centre midfielders having to cover large gaps in the defensive phase and it is very much debatable how well Pogba can do this with his foul on Bellerin to concede a penalty serving to strengthen the argument against him. This setup would also leave the reds even more left side dependent and although AWB has improved his attacking output in recent times it would be a big ask for the United full-back to cover the whole right-hand side.
Paul Pogba’s best spell at United has typically come while operating on the left of a three-man midfield(usually alongside Matic and Herrera). Ole would have to find a way to fit in both Bruno and Pogba and it is questionable to what extent Ole can accomplish this. Fans have called for United to try and replicate Pep’s double 8’s with Pogba and Bruno tasked with operating in the half-spaces and creating for Rashford and co. United are currently lacking in the personnel with DM for example being a big issue with Matic lacking the legs to play as a lone DM and both Fred and McTominay seemingly uncomfortable as lone DM’s. United have also struggled when trying to press high up and have instead favoured defending in a mid-block so the ultra offensive 433 seems very unlikely.
A permanent shift to a 3-4-1-2 doesn’t seem like a permanent option at this point but with the extra man in defence there could be less defensive workload on Paul Pogba and he could be given free rein to join the attack and also look to create from deep, but the lack of width again poses another issue although Telles could be given more freedom on the left and look to provide the width on that side. A five at the back also seems extreme especially against less fancied opponents so it’s questionable if Ole will look to utilize this system on a permanent basis.
Going through this article, there are more questions than answers on how best to utilize Paul Pogba and there is a silent acceptance amongst many sections of the United fanbase that the club may be better off without him and vice versa. The Frenchman’s quality has never been in doubt but fitting him in alongside Bruno in this current setup seems very unlikely with a defensive base of Maguire and Lindelof needing as much protection as it can get. Two Managers in, different systems tried and United are no closer to solving the Paul Pogba conundrum.
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