That Paul Pogba is returning to Old Trafford is not surprising. Despite the protracted nature of the transfer, Manchester United has made steady progress throughout the process. Transfers of this magnitude, and it is a world record at €110 million, are multifaceted and difficult to pull off. Much credit goes to Ed Woodward for pulling this off, though one suspects it was José Mourinho’s dogged will that really facilitated the trade.
As executive vice-chairman Woodward’s principal job is to deliver profits. On pitch performance is critical in this endeavour, of course, and it is no surprise that Woodward has lusted after, in an almost comical fashion, world football’s biggest stars including, but not limited to, Cesc Fabregas and Gareth Bale.
The thing with branding is that you need a star. Omega likes to bring out several interpretations of the Speedmaster, the watch worn by Buzz Aldrin on the moon, while Mercedes bases its design ethos on the S Class. Is there an Apple product that doesn’t start with the letter “i”? Assess what Woodward has done so far and imagine what he can do with a genuine superstar in the side. There is little doubt that commercialism is at the heart of Pogba’s acquisition.
No doubt, the fee is inflated. “For that sort of money, you want someone who is going to score 50 goals a season,” as Paul Scholes put it. Yet, Pogba’s Euro 2016 performances notwithstanding, there is also no doubt that the Frenchman has the potential to be a truly world class midfielder, if he is not one already. As things stand, however, the French midfielder is a jack-of-all-trades rather than a bona fide master of a craft.
He is not a goal scoring midfielder in the Frank Lampard mould, nor is he a creative heartbeat a la Andres Iniesta. Pogba does have that physicality and the all-too-rare ability to carry the ball forward from relatively deep positions. A younger Yaya Touré, with a much higher ceiling, perhaps. Pogba is not a finished product and it will be up to Mourinho to shape the former Juventus midfielder into true greatness.
Combine the two – marketability and class on the field and, in this sense, the fee is reasonable. There is so much marketing potential with Pogba that should he continue the upward rise, Woodward will be able to spin the journey into many a pound.
The side must accommodate, if not be built around, Pogba’s playing style. The Frenchman’s Euro 2016 performances have shown just how much he can be limited if he is crowbarred into deep role. In fact, United’s entire pre-season has been an exercise in Mourinho trying to find a shape for Pogba to star. Logically, 4-3-3 is be the most straightforward option, but this is difficult with club captain Wayne Rooney undroppable.
Pogba’s integration into the side also has an impact around the team. Despite his former life as a winger, Antonio Valencia is much more conservative full-back than Luke Shaw, his counterpart on the left. In this sense, using Valencia to cover for a marauding midfielder is a logical strategy – one that Mourinho tried against Wigan Athletic, Borussia Dortmund and Everton.
Mourinho tried something different against Leicester City at Wembley, where the new United manager swapped the midfielders around. Michael Carrick played on the right, with Maroune Fellaini stationed on the left of a midfield pair. Fellaini’s refusal to pass the ball forward dampened much of United’s attacking effort, but it was easy to see how Pogba could fit into such role with Shaw and Anthony Martial providing the forward runs.
Pogba: world star in the making
Elsewhere, Jesse Lingard was deployed as a proper “false winger” on the right. He came deep into central midfield and only in the defensive phase did he take up a place out wide. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was curiously omitted from the starting line-up, but the Armenian is well suited for this “false winger” role too.
Carrick nominally played the holding role, but it was remarkable to see how adventurous Eric Bailey was in coming forward and engaging Leicester players. Carrick had a quiet game, but it was also unclear what kind of role he was expected to fulfil on the pitch. All the more surprisingly, it was Ander Herrera who replaced the 35-year-old not Morgan Schneiderlin.
Very few players are true holding midfielders today, but Herrera would be a surprising fit even in the modern interpretation of holding role. It begs the question, is a holding midfielder necessary? In Bailey and Chris Smalling, United can boast highly mobile centre-backs who can come off the line. Indeed, United has played with a high line uncharacteristic of Mourinho sides. Rooney, for all his faults, does cover a lot of ground just as Oscar did for Mourinho at Chelsea.
"Imagine what Woodward can do with a genuine superstar. There is so much marketing potential with Pogba that Woodward will be able to spin the journey into many a pound. There is little doubt that commercialism is at the heart of Pogba’s acquisition."
With Mkhitaryan/Lingard tucking in, there are four highly energetic players in the centre and it perhaps makes sense to press instead of emphasizing structure. There is enough pace and power in the side that United can afford to be proactive, though with Pogba any partner will do a lion’s share of holding.
This is reminiscent of United’s early 2011/12 side that featured Tom Cleverley and Anderson in midfield. Each may have taken turns staying behind, but there was no holding midfielder in the truest sense of the word. United got away with it, and smashed Arsenal 8-2 on the way because of Danny Welbeck and Rooney’s propensity to drop deep.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s movement is interesting. For Paris St. Germain, he was more of a traditional number nine. For United, he has consistently dropped deep. Rooney has not so far taken advantage of this movement to run ahead of the ball, but Pogba will. Instead of four players in advanced midfield, Mourinho’s side could feasibly have five. No wonder Herrera has said this will be a highly offensive United side.
As long as United does not overcrowd the middle, the fans could be in for an exhibition of fluid and attacking football that has been missing in Old Trafford for quite some time.
Another player that bears at least a passing resemblance to Pogba is Cesc Fabregas. Not disciplined enough to be one of two in a 4-2-3-1, Arsene Wenger used him at 10. At Barcelona, he was again deemed not disciplined enough to be in the three of a 4-3-3 and Sep Guardiola shoved him into the side at nine. Mourinho, however, managed to used Fabregas in central midfield to a devastating effect – at least for a season.
The Portuguese has the experience to make the best out of Pogba. The only question is whether he will be able to sustain Pogba’s form.
Photo: Manchester United