The Importance of Being Pogba
Manchester United wasn’t in any mood for a song and dance at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Wednesday. The Old Trafford club eased to a 1-0 win against their French opponents, Saint-Etienne – a victory attained at some cost, with Eric Bailly seeing red, and both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick collecting injuries.
The injuries are particularly ill-timed given that United faces Southampton in the final of the EFL Cup on Sunday. They are big blows, no doubt, but perhaps not as catastrophic as they first seem. There are combinations up front and in midfield that José Mourinho can juggle. Meanwhile, a certain French midfielder can step into the breach if required. Indeed, the United squad looks more at ease now compared to the early months of this campaign.
"Pogba has made 1,787 passes in the Premier League this season, second only to Jordan Henderson, and played 23 through balls. Those don’t look like the numbers of a player who doesn’t respect his teammates."
At the beginning of the season this side struggled to reconcile its identity, with performances and results reflecting that uncertainty. Those elements of doubt appear to have vanished with time as the United squad has a clearer idea of how it is meant to play. More importantly, the team is more able to execute game plans.
Naturally, it helps possessing a player as gifted and astute as Paul Pogba on the books. While the Frenchman is capable of fantastically GIF-able moments he has also demonstrated an ability to adapt to José’s tactical demands. That detail may seem a minor point, but nonetheless it should not be overlooked. One only has to recall earlier in the season the cries to play a 4-3-3 in order to accommodate Pogba’s talent. In recent games, alongside Ander Hererra, the Frenchman has looked more than comfortable playing in a 4-2-3-1.
So why is this important? For a start, his ability to operate in a deeper position lessens the impact of losing Michael Carrick. It’s no coincidence that Mourinho’s side plays better when the Geordie is in the side, but it simply isn’t feasible to continue to rely on the 35-year-old to boss midfield.
Former United fullback Paul Parker recently criticized Pogba’s performances this season. Parker has a flair for hyperbole, claiming that Pogba couldn’t “justify his fee unless he scores 15 goals a season and has 25 assists.” That observation should be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s designed to make a headline, but his comment about style of play is worth looking at.
“The problem is that he’s not playing with the same calibre of players that he had at Juventus so he’s trying to do too much and holds onto the ball too long,” said Parker. “He never had so many touches of the ball at Juventus because maybe now he feels he doesn’t have the players around him who he respects. Maybe if he kept it more simple and began respecting the people around he’d do more instead of just flashes.”
A brief look at the stats doesn’t appear to back up those notions. Pogba has made 1,787 passes in the Premier League this season, second only to Jordan Henderson, and played 23 through balls. Those don’t look like the numbers of a player who doesn’t ‘respect’ his teammates.
The remark about simplicity does bear a little scrutiny though, certainly if one is to go over Pogba’s early matches. To the naked eye the Frenchman appeared to be trying too hard, perhaps in an effort to justify his transfer fee. It certainly didn’t help that he and his manager was still searching for the correct role.
"Pogba’s discipline in a 4-2-3-1 allows for United to exploit the attacking options at Mourinho’s disposal and gives the United boss the tactical flexibility to alter his team’s style of play. "
Now though things seem more settled and Pogba is demonstrating, if any proof was required, that teams don’t necessarily need to be built around the Frenchman for him to thrive. It is common knowledge that he can be devastating on the left hand side of midfield in a 4-3-3, but he’s showing that playing effectively in a 4-2-3-1 isn’t beyond his repertoire.
His performance against Watford prompted Mourinho to argue that Pogba “is playing with great balance in these last two games: he is playing with his brain, he is recovering a lot of balls, he is very good in his positional play.” Pogba is an outrageous talent, but not enough is made of his tactical nous. Mourinho mentioned Pogba’s positional play is sound and knows when to go forward and when to he needs to cover. Moreover, with Pogba adapting to his deeper role it allows for Mourinho to play Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the pitch together, a seemingly unthinkable proposition a few months ago.
Pogba’s discipline in a 4-2-3-1 allows for United to exploit the attacking options at Mourinho’s disposal and gives the United boss the tactical flexibility to alter his team’s style of play. Naysayers will argue that this iteration of Pogba won’t be able to score 15 goals or lay on 25 assists; that he doesn’t justify the transfer fee. Maybe they’re missing the point. Goals and assists don’t necessarily reflect Pogba’s ability to break presses with his range of passing, not to mention his dribbling. Nor do they shine a light on his ability to recognise transitions of play and act accordingly.
But isn’t £89 million a lot to pay for effectively a holding midfielder? Perhaps but maybe Mourinho’s plan isn’t to embark on a clumsy galactico style endeavour where all the stars are forced fit into the side. That money has bought one of the finest midfielders of his generation, who is savvy enough to adapt his game and still perform to a top class level. So much so that by playing deeper he allows forwards more freedom to express themselves because they know the Frenchman can deliver – whether covering the defence or initiating attacks with intelligent passes.
Mourinho is a believer.
“I am really happy with what he has been doing for us,” the Portuguese coach said. “He gives us an incredible balance and he is still very young. He starts build-ups from the back, he recovers the ball and at the top of the pitch he is a guy that can score goals. He can be fantastic and I think in a couple of years you will realise he was cheap.”
An £89 million bargain? In the world of football that may not be as preposterous as it sounds.