Out of sight, but rarely out of mind. A media-darling and one of the most polarising players on the planet.
Paul Pogba; overrated or underrated? Is he fairly rated? What’s his best position? Do we know? Does his coach know? Does he know? How do we quantify his time in England?
The truth is, everyone has an opinion on Paul Pogba, and the spectrum of said opinion is so broad. Some think he’s the best central midfielder on the planet mirroring the level of prime Steven Gerrard and Zinedine Zidane. Some say Manchester United would be better off playing Scott McTominay.
In my eyes, Paul Pogba is one of the most naturally gifted footballers in the Premier League. With the departure of Eden Hazard to Spain, he might just be number one on that list. Yes, alongside all of the other big names you want to throw out there. Kevin De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah, David Silva, Virgil Van Dijk, and anyone else you want to throw in the mix.
One of the most talented footballers in football, and yet, it feels like we’ve never truly seen the best of him in the Premier League. This is now his fourth season in England, and while I’m willing to give him a pass for this season, the truth is, in his first three seasons, it feels like we’ve been left wanting more for the majority of the time.
From a player who can quite literally do everything on a football pitch, it seems like he goes missing far too often. In terms of natural footballing ability, he is probably on par with Lampard, Scholes, and Gerrard. However, his motor, hunger, and intensity isn’t the same. Let’s not fool ourselves here; what can’t Pogba do?
He can play all roles across the midfield. You want him to break up the opposition’s attack and start yours similar to Ngolo Kante? He can do that. Control the pace of play as Toni Kroos so often does? He can do that. Act as a progressive midfielder tasked with breaking lines and advancing the play like Luka Modric? No problem. Make runs into the box and be a 20-goal a season player as Frank Lampard did? Check.
His skillset means he can do all of the above, and he can do these things not only to an adequate degree, but to a world-class level. Pogba is one of the most rounded players on the planet.
The problem is, just because Pogba encompasses all of these attributes, it does not mean he showcases this regularly. Much to the annoyance of fractions of the Manchester United faithful.
Pogba’s spell at Juventus, and his form for his country, has at times been worlds apart from the version which graces the Premier League. How was he utilised in these setups to best maximise his talent?
After leaving Manchester United in 2012, Pogba would go to Juventus to kickstart his senior career with the Turin based side. He spent an impressive four seasons in Italy which prompted Jose Mourinho to fork out a world record £89m. But what exactly did Pogba do to command a world record fee? It begs the question, especially considering that the opinion on Pogba is somewhat split. Just ask Graeme Souness.
Conte spent the first two years working with Pogba from 2012 to 2014. In those two years, he was part of a 3-5-2 set up, Conte’s favoured system which he would eventually imprint on Stamford Bridge. In that formation, Pogba played in a three-man midfield, alongside either Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo or Arturo Vidal.
Pogba was not yet a key part of the Juventus side, with him restricted to substitute appearances. Despite this, he would eventually put his stamp on the starting eleven, becoming a more prominent part of the side. Pogba made 37 appearances throughout his debut year.
The following season is when Pogba really became an integral part of the Juventus squad, featuring in most games. In 2013/14, Pogba pulled on the black and white of Juventus 51 times in a heavily rotated midfield three. Pogba played across the midfield, but more often than not, he played left of centre.
Pirlo, when playing, would be in the centre, in his favoured deep-lying playmaker role, with Vidal being the most used on the right. In the wing-back roles, there were two workhorses in Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichsteiner. Pogba scored nine goals, but that was not all he would bring to this Juventus outfit.
Pogba would offer Conte the promise of pushing up the field of play and advancing the ball through the phases, whether it was via dribbling or passing the ball. Something which he has replicated in Manchester, but not with the same regularity as he did in Italy.
Conte managed to be the best from Pogba when he featured in a more defined and concentrated role in an area of the pitch. Whether it was left or right of centre, the chances of seeing Pogba zoning around the field was a lot less. The supporting players around him were very beneficial to him.
Pirlo brought balance and set the tempo like only he could muster. Marchisio or Vidal fulfilled the hard graft necessary in top successful European sides. This enabled Pogba, who has been deemed not to play at such a high intensity in matches, to focus on specific aspects of the game.
Defensively, his role was to block space and help Juventus keep a disciplined shape. It wasn’t an all-action role like Chelsea’s Ngolo Kante fulfils for the Blues. The role was a disciplined one with a view of keeping the team’s shape. A function which was extremely important to the solid Juventus defensive structure.
Offensively, his role focused on advancing the ball, whether in semi-transition or a full counter-attack. This aspect of his game was very much called upon with the turnover of the ball. This rings true more so for a team as solid as Juventus with increased turnover opportunities. Pogba was also tasked in helping break down defensively solid sides, as is the case with lots of teams in Italy. His advancement of the ball gave Juventus something they hadn’t had in a long time; a transition threat.
This season saw Pogba exhibit exponential growth game by game, and while Juventus would go out in the group stage of the Champions League, it was impossible to ignore the Pogba’s rise. His importance to the Juventus side was growing each weekend. He was making the most appearances for the team, and sat as the fourth leading scorer.
His defensive role wasn’t as pronounced as say Steven Gerrard or Patrick Vieira, but his ability to help hold the team’s shape alongside other disciplined players was clear to see. His partners in midfield held his hand to a degree, and this was important. As long as he helped keep the shape, Pogba had license to run rampant while advancing the ball with progressive running and passing, helping raise his profile through the year.
Make no mistake, Pogba was undoubtedly an offensively driven player. He was not a box-to-box player so much, he was a disciplined offensive player, just waiting for his chance to break from Conte’s shackles when it benefited the team. It’s difficult to see how he could carry out his role without others doing their own to a high standard. Was Pogba a ‘luxury’ player under Conte? Maybe that is a stretch too far.
Even looking back on his impressive years in Turin, he still divides opinion.
While he was important, he was not the most crucial player for Conte. While he was influential, without Pirlo setting the tempo, and Vidal doing the hard graft, Pogba would be forced to defend, even more, something he has not shown a penchant for.
Nonetheless, Juventus had built a very solid and balanced midfield around him. Pogba was able to carry out his role at a world-class level. When playing under Conte and alongside Pirlo and the rest in Turin, Pogba was near-on irreplaceable. He showed he was one of the most uniquely talented players in Serie A, capable of impacting games at the highest level in Italy.
The following season for Pogba was one of further improvement. New head coach, Massimiliano ‘Max’ Allegri, veered away from the more defensive 3-5-2. Instead, he utilised either a three-man midfield in a 4-3-3 set up, or a diamond shape, with Pogba usually to the left of both formations.
This new shape had Pogba’s support acts being not two of three, but all three of Marchisio, Vidal, and Pirlo. The Chilean now frequently being used in the ‘number 10’ spot behind the two strikers. This new shape gave Pogba even more license to roam upfield. Vidal, a very hard-working player, accompanied Marchisio who provided his usual dogged work rate, alongside Pirlo in his usual playmaker role.
With Pirlo playing less and less due to age and waning legs, the addition of the two central midfielders made all the sense in the world to add cover for him, and to a lesser degree, Pogba.
Agonisingly, and similarly to this season in Manchester, Pogba had a significant chunk of his season snatched from him due to a hamstring injury. Despite this, he had his best goalscoring season, registering 10 in 41 games. This highlighted the fact that he had even less defensive responsibility and played with a shift in focus offensively. Pogba could be found high upfield on the left-wing operating in half-spaces and other dangerous areas more regularly.
Pogba was a creative force under Allegri, and it resulted in his finest season for Juventus up to that point. Did Max Allegri unleash the true version of Paul Pogba?
Now, onto the Frenchman’s final season in Turin. Pirlo and Vidal had departed for pastures new, and the onus was now on Pogba to produce more well-rounded performances.
He answered the call, raising his game even further, and still naturally improving as a footballer. Pogba created chance after chance for his teammates, alongside advancing the ball up the field with regularity, and slicing through lines of opposing defences. This was arguably Pogba in his fullest form. But why was he excelling to such a degree?
Let’s look at Allegri’s midfield pawns most used around Pogba in what was now a three-man midfield. Instead of Pirlo and Vidal, Marchisio and newly purchased former Galactico, Sami Khedira, featured. Again, two extremely hard-working midfielders helped Pogba’s focus on defensive work take a backseat.
Similarly to previous seasons, this allowed him to roam upfield and help break down opposition defences without having to worry about leaving Juventus’ back-line exposed. A common theme during his time with the Italian giants.
The two seasons under Allegri had Pogba performing at a level which saw him listed as one of the very best midfielders on the planet. Free from defensive responsibility for the most part, and allowed to focus on the offensive part of his game. This was a continuation of his growth throughout his Juventus spell.
It is clear what role Pogba had settled into and subsequently thrived in. It was one of perceived luxury, and someone who wasn’t required to help much defensively, nonetheless, an essential cog in the team’s offensive assault on Serie A.
A dream of a World Cup midfield
Pogba has been named in France’s squad at three international tournaments. The 2018 World Cup stands head and shoulders above the other two in terms of Pogba’s performance level: France’s 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Pogba left Manchester following the close of the Premier League and shone in the eyes of most of the watching world.
In the first game, France were less than stellar, struggling past Australia. Les Bleus played a 4-3-3 with Ngolo Kante at the base, and Corentin Tolliso to the right. Perfect for Pogba, right? Except it wasn’t. France limped past Australia, in a side which lacked balance across the field.
Pogba forced an own goal, but didn’t perform well. The second game against Peru brought more balance, and as a result, a better Pogba. He showcased that he could play in a combative defensive role as a midfielder, but again, his supporting act encompassed Blaise Matuidi and Kante.
Matuidi essentially played as a wide-left central midfielder, not giving much output offensively, and Kante was doing, well, what you would expect from Kante. As a result, Pogba could slip into his favoured role of helping further up the pitch in the channel where he grabbed a goal contribution.
He continued in this role on the right side against Argentina, playing multiple through balls to the rampant Kylian Mbappé, and helping out defensively for the French. Pogba’s quality of performance rose as the tournament progressed, with him being named man of the match in the final.
Here is the most important part; his performances were not with him playing off the left of a midfield three. He was on the right of a double midfield pivot, showing that it is not where he plays, but instead who he plays with. In this instance, Matuidi and Kante, two not known for their marauding progressive runs and attacking capabilities. Two robust, hard-working central midfielders.
It was the same in his final two seasons at Juventus. Juventus also had Pirlo, but the principle is the same with the two other workhorse midfielders. Players who take the pressure off of Pogba and do the invisible hard-yards. It appears that players with specific attributes need to be around him to allow him to flourish and maximise his ability higher up the pitch.
With that being said, when he does flourish, it’s marvellous. It’s a necessary evil to surround him with players who will take defensive pressure away from him.
Is Pogba’s Premier LEague best En Route?
Let’s look at the period where Pogba was looking like one of the Premier League’s elite cast. It was a stretch around Christmas 2018, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had just been hired. Pogba was running riot across the country.
Accompanying him in midfield was Nemanja Matic and for the most-part, Ander Herrera. Jesse Lingard in his usual hard-working role chipped in to provide a shift and also lay on cover for Pogba. Again, what do you see? Two hard-working, defensively solid midfielders, and another grafter defending from the front.
Even Marcus Rashford and his hard-working self helps immensely with the lack of defensive work which sometimes rears its head with Pogba. These four support pieces let him go to work offensively. Of course, with the talent he possesses, he delivered. In the next two months, Pogba played in 12 matches and had 15 goal involvements. He wasn’t advancing the ball up the field as much as he did for Juventus, although that’s not to say he didn’t do it, just not as much. He was still putting in a level of work defensively, but it shares similarities to his role in 2014/15, where his role was concentrated offensively. It worked, as United in those two months won 10 of their 12 games.
Pogba again displayed how playing him alongside two other hard-working centre midfielders offering cover, in a side with hard-working players ahead of him, could wreak havoc for other defences. But again, it is reliant on other players who will defend and put in the hard yards for Pogba to allow him to have a clear focused role creating for others going forward. Without this, he has proved he is not as effective.
When Pogba has these support pieces, he is nigh-on impossible to deal with. His overall skill set is immense, but it is frustrating that he needs others to work off the ball to enable him to be one of the best players on the planet. Is it worth it? Absolutely. But it is a tough task for a manager to accommodate. An enigma if you will.
Bruno Fernandes brings both hard work and graft, alongside offensive guile. Nemanja Matic is an ever-reliable presence and able to disrupt the opposition and provide a solid shield. Fred and Scott McTominay also in the mix, who both give workhorse energy for 90 minutes.
Pogba now has a number of players who can work alongside him and free him up, to enable him to be one of the very best. Pair that with Marcus Rashford, who will run until the final whistle, and it can be argued that Pogba has everything needed to succeed and replicate his form Juventus.
The question now is, can he do it? Can he get a run of games together away from injury and transfer sagas? Will he step up and lead this Manchester United team? The world is watching. Pogba, come through and deliver. Be the superstar we know you can be.
Written by: Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__J10