The complete modern midfielder: what would be Paul Pogba’s best position at Manchester United?
What does a nine figure transfer fee get a club these days?
Judging by the price tags bounded around Manchester United’s pursuit of Paul Pogba, a 23-year-old capable of just about anything, and who can play almost anywhere through the centre of the park.
The question hanging over his purported move back to Old Trafford is not so much about his quality as a footballer but where he will play, or at least what should be considered his best position.
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At Juventus, Pogba played his best football on the left of a three-man midfield, working off the surging forward runs of Patrice Evra, and attacking the channels from deep to pick defences apart with passing or take the ball past his markers with his dribbling.
For the past four years, he has stood out as a rising star in Serie A and a near constant, awkward reminder of what could have been had he not left United in 2012 with just three Premier League appearances to his name.
He has flourished in Turin, feeding off the opportunity of first-team football, first as an apprentice tasked with going to fetch for Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, later as an emerging master in his own right.
No player recorded more assists in the Italian topflight last season than Pogba, who laid on 12 goals for his teammates. Wayne Rooney was top of the charts for United with just six assists. The Frenchman also created more chances than Juan Mata, all the while contributing far more to other parts of the team in other areas of the pitch.
With the ball at his feet, he completed 102 take ons, more than any United player, and 18 more than Anthony Martial. He made more interceptions than Michael Carrick. Only Morgan Schneiderlin could top him in midfield. His tackling was also impressive, putting in a total of 140 challenges. Matteo Darmian was the one squad member to attempt more than the Frenchman, and he played mostly at full-back.
As should be expected from the fees that have been mentioned, he is the complete modern midfielder: individually dangerous with his long range shooting and vision but also diligent and hard-working when it comes to his defensive duties and bringing the best out of the players around him – but where could he fit in at United?
There are reasons why Paul Pogba has been compared to Patrick Vieira that are too obvious and inaccurate to bother going into here, but needless to say, the parallels that have been drawn between the two players are beyond lazy and ill-considered.
Yes, he may be tall for his position – six-foot-three to be precise – but he isn’t especially strong or athletic, at least not more so than any other elite footballer in the modern game. Pogba beats defenders and dominates games with his grace and skill: he overawes opponents rather than simply overpowering them as the caricatures might suggest.
While he can certainly add an extra degree dynamism and directness to a team’s midfield, he also has far more to his game – a rare degree of poise and technical exuberance that demands extra responsibilities beyond pacing across the park.
He has often provided a marauding presence to Juventus’ attack from deep, for sure, but the midfield battles of the Premier League have a physicality that doesn’t exist to the same degree in Serie A. To use him as a box-to-box player in the context of the English topflight would be a waste.
Defensive or holding midfielder
Pogba is also regularly compared to Yaya Toure, especially he was linked with a move to join Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City earlier this year. The Frenchman would have probably been the natural successor to the Ivorian at the Etihad, but not a like-for-like replacement.
Didier Deschamps entrusted the 23-year-old to play a deeper role for France in the latter stages of Euro 2016 as Antoine Griezmann became the offensive focal point for the national team. Although he was criticised during the tournament and labelled a disappointment, largely due to his relative lack of goals and assists, as United fans well known, a midfielder doesn’t have to be prolific in either area to be a great player.
Roy Keane was the glue at the heart of Sir Alex Ferguson’s title-winning teams throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and regardless of his header against Juventus to help send the club through to the Champions League final in 1999, did his best work as the player who supplied the pass before the final ball and cleaned up for others.
Even as France lost out to the eventual winners Portugal in the final of Euro 2016, Pogba dutifully played the defensive role asked of him by his manager, even if he was unable to shine at the match-winner spectators had expected. Old Trafford will also expect something more spectacular form the Frenchman for the money that has been quoted for his services, which makes a future in a holding role look unlikely at United.
Attacking midfield, or a No. 10
Even before he was picked as the face of France’s attempts to win another international tournament on home soil this summer, Pogba was often cast as the new Zinedine Zidane, in part due to their shared connections as Juventus playmakers past and present.
However, legend has sometimes come to obscure the facts over the type of footballer the current Real Madrid was as a player. Unlike Pogba, Zidane drifted in and out games – not disappearing in a negative sense, but dropping into gaps, finding space and always making himself available to receive the ball and create something out of nothing, such was his quality and vision. It was pointless throwing him into the close combat situations that came with winning the ball. His game was about vision and technical superiority.
Pogba has skill in abundance but just as it would have been a waste to play Zidane in a role unsuited to his style of play, his heir apparent can offer more without the ball and on the run than his predecessor, although playing in the hole behind the main attacker could be one way the Frenchman could line up at United.
With Anthony Martial on the left, Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the right, Pogba could thrive as the playmaker in an attacking midfield role. Mourinho deployed Oscar in a similar position at Chelsea, and while the Brazilian may not be as individually brilliant as the Juventus midfielder, he did play an important role defending from the front as well as creating chances. Pogba would be a major upgrade in that role if the Portuguese decides to take a similar approach at Old Trafford.
However, if the Frenchman is to return to Manchester as the world’s most expensive player, ideas of functionality may well go out the window, with a touch of fantasy playing its part in the logic behind how to fit the midfielder into Mourinho’s plans at United. Instead of fitting Pogba into his system, the Portuguese may chose to make his new system fit the player.
Returning back to his second Chelsea team, Mourinho deployed Cesc Fabregas to great effect as the focal point of the team in midfield. The Spaniard was freed up to roam from deep, picking up the ball and distributing it around the park, picking out chances at will and generally floating into the most dangerous positions possible to hurt the opposition.
It could be worth affording Pogba similar freedoms at United, seeing as much of the ball as possible and charged with instigating and orchestrating moves from behind the attack. Given his superior record as a goalscorer too, he would likely to be encouraged to conduct regular raids on the opposition’s box in addition to orchestrating attacking moves from one end of the field to the other.
So, what’s the best fit for Pogba?
Much depends on formation. Mourinho has set his side out in a 4-2-3-1 this summer but he enjoyed success with a 4-3-3 during his first successful stint in the Premier League, and his new squad appears to have the perfect collection of players to fit that shape.
At Juventus, Pogba was at his best when playing in a free role on the left of a three-man midfield, combining with the runs of Patrice Evra from left back, playing the ball off his team mate as he bombed on down the flank. Luke Shaw could be a similarly productive partner for the Frenchman from the same position.
For all the bitter memories of how he departed, Angel Di Maria initially looked like the player United had been waiting for when given free reign in a central midfield slot. Pogba is a more complete footballer, defensively, than the Argentinian and could make the role stick under Mourinho, even if he can’t yet boast of being quite as ingenious with the ball as the Paris Saint-Germain playmaker.
Letting the Frenchman to take to the field and go at games as he finds them may be the only way to be the best out of him, and justify his transfer fee. After all, he could be the playmaker, the goalscorer, a busy, buzzing box-to-box menace or even a more studious presence in a deeper role, looking after the defence and the balance of his side.
Trying to tie him down to just aspect or element of his game would be a waste, and with the money United are reportedly ready to spend on the 23-year-old, any suggestion that his value could be squandered would be intolerable for fans and pundits expecting the arrival of a new Premier League superstar this summer.