Manchester United’s second consecutive away defeat – a loss that dragged them back into a top four scuffle – highlighted a number of issues within the squad, but it is Paul Pogba’s malaise that is proving the biggest worry for Jose Mourinho; how can the manager get the best out of his star man?
Graeme Souness, Liverpool and Scotland legend-turned-seasoned Sky Sports pundit, has long been a critic of Pogba’s. He draws a lot of criticism from United fans, who assumes his dislike of the Frenchman is down to his Anfield allegiance and deep-rooted bias. Listen closely to what he says though, and it’s hard to challenge the Scot’s views.
According to Souness. Pogba is not well-equipped to be a leading Premier League midfielder. He lacks the natural discipline to play centre midfield, his work-rate leave a lot to be desired for, and all too often he gets caught out-wide and leaves his side open to counter attacks.
On all four counts, Souness is correct. Let’s not forget that there are hardly any individuals better equipped to judge a midfielder than Souness. The man clocked over 250 appearances for the great Liverpool side of the 80s, winning five league titles and three European Cups along the way. He’s regarded as one of the best midfielders these isles have ever produced. So when he argues that a certain footballer isn’t up to the standards demanded of an elite, box-to-box midfield player, you tend to take notice and listen.
And perhaps that is the crux of the problem; should Paul Pogba be regarded as a centre midfielder? If he shouldn’t be, somebody should tell Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese manager made Pogba his marquee signing upon arrival at United, splashing £90m on the supremely gifted 23 year old, then a world-record fee. Such was the quality and apparent stardust appeal to the Frenchman, not many people raised eyebrows at the mouth-watering fee.
Before we delve further, this article isn’t a character assassination of Paul Pogba; he is an incredibly talented footballer, able to do things with a ball that only a handful others in the game can do. His touch, vision and passing are a rare combination that should put him in the top bracket of footballers plying their trade today. The issue is more his deployment on the field and how best to eek every last drop of talent from him.
If the last two away games are anything to go by, and there’s plenty more scenarios we can choose from, it’s that Pogba isn’t equipped to play in a two man midfield. It’s akin to sticking a Formula One car in London rush hour traffic and questioning why it isn’t pushing 200mph.
Going back to his Juventus days, Pogba was at his absolute best when he was playing on the left of a three-man midfield. Back then, he had the once-in-a-generation talent of Andrea Pirlo propping up the midfield alongside one of Claudio Marchisio or Arturo Vidal. Any three of those aforementioned midfielders wouldn’t look out of place in a team of the decade XI. They allowed Pogba to rampage through the middle, pick up positions on the left flank and use his power and technique to slalom his way through the inside-left position. If he lost the ball, no problem; Vidal or Marchisio would pick up the pieces and regain possession. In short, a lot of defensive responsibility was shifted away from his young shoulders.
Such standout performances earned him his dream move back to Manchester United for the aforementioned record fee, and his teaming up with Mourinho was supposed to represent the start of a new era for the Old Trafford giants. Alas, it hasn’t quite worked out.
There have been times when the Frenchman has looked every inch the superstar midfielder. More often than not, those performances came in games where he was on the left of a three-pronged midfield. His last standout performance was earlier this year away to Everton. The Frenchman ran the show in the 3-0 win. In the reverse of yesterday’s fixture, Pogba again dominated the game in a roaming midfield role, scoring in a 4-1 victory.
Opposition fans must relish the struggles facing Pogba and Mourinho currently. This is a footballer and a club that seem to go hand in hand: both love the limelight and crave the marketing attention. This can cause additional expectation and pressure; hark back to last season’s home draw against Liverpool, when Pogba folded under pressure, fluffing a one-on-one and giving away a brainless penalty kick. Earlier that day, Twitter launched a Pogba emoji that was advertised all around Old Trafford. The associated hashtag and imagery was used after the game to poke fun at him.
With 12 games to go in the league and the return of the Champions League on the horizon, Mourinho and Pogba are in a race against time to get it right. The solution seems like an obvious one to take: revert to a three man midfield and let his record man operate on his own accord. It’s not quite as simple as that, however. Fielding three in midfield means an attacker will need to be dropped, and that isn’t an easy decision by any means.
Romelu Lukaku is United’s only out-and-out striker and virtually a guaranteed starter. The arrival of Alexis Sanchez on astronomical wages means the Chilean, likewise, will probably start every game between now and the end of the season. On the left hand side, one of Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford will be in the starting XI. That means dropping the number 10, Mourinho’s trademark player. Lately, that has been Jesse Lingard, a player that has been in very good form for the past three months. It’d be extremely harsh, not to mention hypocritical, to drop Lingard in order to free up Pogba.
Pogba is only 24 years old, time is clearly on his side, but time will tell if it will ever happen for him at United. Perhaps it’ll take a different manager to Mourinho to get the most out of him. Perhaps the penny will drop for the player and realise a great midfielder shares as much defensive responsibility as he does attacking.