Whether it be with a pass, shot, or celebration, Paul Pogba’s ability to send the footballing community into hysterics remains unprecedented. As one of the most polarizing figures in football, his dab with the world cup wasn’t the first time he’s sundered opinion and it certainly won’t be the last. But Pogba’s divisive nature comes down to much more than a dance or how he styles his hair.
As the star of an ostentatious marketing campaign, the expectation for the Frenchman to be an offensively minded midfield dynamo stems from his time at Juventus. With the Old Lady nearly conquering Europe, Pogba’s talents as a supremely gifted technical and physical specimen shined bright in a system that elevated his gifts, ultimately earning him a move back to his boyhood club, Manchester United. A few years down the road, however, and the story isn’t as fulfilling as fans and Adidas executives alike, would have wanted it to be.
After two drab seasons of Mourinho-ball, Pogba’s stock plateaued. While flashes of brilliance as a press-resistant star have kept people believing in the astronomic height of his potential, the lack of end product in an offensively conservative system also made believers into doubters., And, much like the more unforgiving assessments of Pogba, France’s display at the World Cup was rife with an overwhelming sense of underperformance. Though the majority of their games were justifiable wins, the expectation that came with such a star-studded team sheet made people feel like the defensive approach Didier Deschamps favored was a misuse of immense talent. Outside of games against Sampaoli’s certifiably insane Argentina and a freakish final, there was no palpable explosion of French attacking play.
Though France’s tournament wasn’t the summer blockbuster hit featuring Pogba some that hoped it would be, the Frenchman’s contribution to the eventual champions was indispensable. As a deep passer of the ball that excelled at progressing possession in meaningful ways, Pogba quietly thrived in a system that really only provided a stage for Kylian Mbappe and some of the other forwards to shine. However, his success, regardless of how known or unknown it was, presents the problem Pogba has faced since joining the red devils: his ability to be proficient at the things many would typically suggest a “6” does in football plays into Jose Mourinho’s tendency to deploy the Frenchman in deeper midfield. And yet, not only is it a contrast to what the footballing community, marketing executives, and possibly Pogba, wants, but his deployment under Mourinho vastly differs from his role with France. Though at a cursory glance they may appear to be similar, there are quite a few reasons why it differs. There’s more than one way to be constrained by a system.
First and foremost, international football is entirely separate from club football in format. Though a team like France may have had the option of possession versus counter-attack in stylistic choice, club teams don’t have the same luxury. Playing a more complex, possession-oriented style of football is a requirement for teams with access to talent in the club game, not an option. As the chart above shows, much of Pogba’s talent as a passer was used to fuel the effectiveness of France’s counter-attacks. Mourinho may forever see himself as the quintessential counter-attacking manager, but the nature of being Manchester United means the vast majority of your opponents will take a reactive approach to the game. With little space to move into, Pogba’s current role at United nullifies the progressive passing numbers that made him so effective this summer.
Second is personnel. Long has the debate surrounding Pogba been about those surrounding him. Nemanja Matic was the player intended to finally free the Frenchman from the defensive duties that shackled his brilliance going forward, and while the Serbian is a more than adequate midfield partner for just about any player, the relationship Pogba was able to strike up with N’Golo Kante this summer has been so much more effective. With the Chelsea man making the tackles and Pogba moving it forward, Deschamps was able to forego playing a traditional attacking midfielder in their 4–2–3–1 formation since much of the creation stemmed from the transition created by their midfield duo.
Any discussion of what Pogba’s game with United should look like needs to start with an understanding of why it won’t replicate what he did this summer. His relative ‘failure’ at Manchester United is down to his ability, or lack thereof, to fulfill a role few can even define. Somewhere between the player he’s marketed as and only making sideways passes lies the role he’s supposed to play. We know he has the ability to be the number ten the shirt selling giant wants him to be because his strong numbers at Juventus, though over two years old, are still relevant. We also know that his ability in a deeper position could be of use as well. What perhaps needs to be allowed is a redefinition of what Pogba’s success looks like- something beyond what our current mental construct of Paul Pogba allows for.
The most frustrating reality United fans have experienced under Mourinho is that there seem to be so many avenues for their marquee signing to thrive, and yet he’s experienced none of them. Whether it’s a re-imagining of his attack-minded form at Juventus -something that’s all the more probable with the addition of Fred- or letting go of the idea that he should be whatever this is, and allow him to flourish as a deeper midfielder, Pogba, like any player, requires direction.
For the media, much of the blame is easily lumped on a player that seems all too distracted by hair-dye and Fortnite celebrations, but it’s clear that the downturn in attack isn’t entirely his fault. No one in Jose Mourinho’s United has thrived offensively, and most of the team’s underlying attacking numbers pale in comparison to players of similar positions in the top six. In his final year at Juventus, Pogba ranked 7th in Serie A in both xA and xGChain. At United last season, he ranked 42nd and 37th respectively. The massive drop-off in production isn’t all him, and a World Cup winning summer in Russia all but proves that. Pogba can still be great; he just needs to be allowed to.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association