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Manchester knew they had a special talent on their hands when they signed Paul Pogba from Le Havre in 2009.
As part of a United youth team featuring Jesse Lingard and the ‘what might have been’ Ravel Morrison, Pogba won the FA Youth Cup, underlining the bright future that lay ahead of him. But a 2011 tie against Blackburn Rovers changed the course of Pogba’s career.
With United reeling from a series of midfield injuries, Sir Alex Ferguson chose to partner Phil Jones alongside Fabio da Silva in the centre of midfield. Pogba, feeling that he should have been given the call up, decided that United did not appreciate his talent, thus deciding to take his talents to Turin by signing for Juventus on a free.
Away from Old Trafford, Pogba flourished and over the course of 4 seasons, winning Serie A in each of them, he became one of the world’s most exciting midfielders and a name on the lips of every elite club in Europe. Recognising their faux par, United determined to put right their mistake and bring home their prodigal French son, which they achieved to the world record tune of £89m in 2016.
Pogba’s return was marked with a fanfare fit for a king and an announcement video blurring the lines between football, music and commerce (how very modern). Indeed, Paul Pogba was back home. Yet, despite returning as one of the world’s most exciting talents, as well as its most expensive, many of the old problems reared their ugly heads.
In his first season back in Manchester, Pogba was criticised for failing to make enough of an impact on Jose Mourinho’s side. There were sparks of brilliance, but all too often Pogba’s performances felt forced, unnatural and largely ineffective.
A man of the match performance in United’s Europa League final triumph proved that Pogba had the potential to lead his team to glory, but just like his first time around, it seemed as though United were at a loss as to how to get the best of him on the regular.
And now 18 months into his return, things appear to be coming to a head with the suggestion that Pogba, who wants to play on the left side of a 4-3-3, has clashed with Jose Mourinho, who so far has preferred the Frenchman alongside Nemanja Matic in a 4-2-3-1.
Unceremoniously dragged off against Tottenham and Newcastle in recent weeks, there are reports of a major bust up between player and manager, with Pogba’s absence from United’s comfortable win against Huddersfield due to ‘illness’ conspicuously vague and suspiciously coincidental.
The back pages are now flooded with speculation on the relationship between Pogba and his manager, with journalists questioning whether Pogba will look to leave, or be sold. In many ways, such an event would underline the strange relationship between player and club, one in which Manchester United clearly recognise the talent that Pogba possesses, but don’t understand how to activate it.
But let’s not get carried away. Despite his frustration this season, Pogba has still had a telling impact on his side, registering 9 goals in just 17 appearances.
Against Everton, Pogba provided assists for both of his sides’ goals, doing so from his preferred position on the left of a midfield three, whilst against Stoke, Pogba relished in a freer role, commanding the game and laying on a further 2 assists.
There is no doubt that in order to get the best out of Pogba, you have to give him the freedom to express himself. To channel the immortal words of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there is no point buying a Ferrari, only to drive it like a Fiat. So, the question is, why won’t Mourinho let Pogba loose?
You might argue that affording his player’s poetic licence is something that Jose Mourinho is not prepared to do. Certainly, his teams are built on the basis of defensive discipline and even talents as prestigious as Eden Hazard have come a cropper when they have turned their nose up at doing the dirty work that Mourinho fuels his title challenges upon.
But at the same time, Mourinho is a pragmatist who will fully understand that the system in which he is playing Pogba limits both his, and the team’s potential. Furthermore, with the addition of Alexis Sanchez, a 4-3-3 in which Sanchez and Martial/Rashford/Lingard flank Lukaku, looks like a pretty exciting prospect.
So, you ask, why persevere with the 4-2-3-1? Well, for two reasons.
The first is that playing a 4-3-3 in which Matic holds and Pogba plays from the left, requires a third player capable of balancing the team when Pogba joins the attack. Looking once again at Juventus, this would be a player in the style of Miralem Pjanic, a player who controls the pace of the game, enabling Matic to screen the defence, and Pogba to add electricity.
It is United’s absence of this player that leaves Mourinho reluctant to move away from his 2-man midfield, which adds solidity to his side, even if it takes away from its attacking verve.
Mourinho clearly feels that Herrera is not capable of fulfilling this function, while all can see that Fellaini is not the man to do so. Michael Carrick is simply too old. However, with United expected to sign a midfielder in the summer, quite possibly Jean Michael Seri from Nice, expect this issue to be addressed.
The second factor behind Mourinho’s safe and secure strategy is that his defence is simply not good enough. Darmian, Shaw, Jones and Smalling have all been criticised by their manager, while Rojo and Young are likely only in favour because Mourinho recognises that they are playing at the full capacity (that capacity not being high enough to challenge at the very top level).
Aside from requiring a counter balance in midfield, a 4-3-3 places a greater pressure on the back 4 as it leaves the side with just one holding midfielder and again and again both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have proven that they are not capable of carrying that kind of burden. Neither is consistent enough to warrant the absolute faith of Mourinho and as such, his insistence upon a 2-man screen is indicative of the lack of faith he has in his back line.
Eric Bailly looks every bit the centre back United need and Luke Shaw is showing signs of becoming the player he was supposed to have been 2 years ago, but ultimately every other United defender is quite easily replaceable (just not all at the same time).
This summer will likely see more defensive recruits added and if Mourinho can construct a back line strong enough to sustain itself, he will be freer to afford his midfield more attacking license. In short, he can release Pogba.
Ultimately it is the back four which is the biggest factor preventing Mourinho from employing a 4-3-3 with more regularity. Hopefully, Pogba is able to recognise this and can continue to do his best in a role which is not suited to his many talents.
It is imperative however, that United address this situation in the summer, because Pogba is a world class talent and if he feels that talent is being wasted at United, he will take it somewhere else.
He did it before and there is no reason to doubt that he would do it again.
Written by Scott Pope
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