“One of the best games Pogba had was the Everton game [2-0 win on January 1], when he was on the left of Matic – in a similar position to the one he played at Juventus – and Ander Herrera was on the right. I think that position where he’s on the left of a midfield three is where he’s at his best,” club legend Ryan Giggs told Sky Sports recently.
It’s an opinion shared by United’s all-time top-scorer, too. Wayne Rooney expressed as much on Monday Night Football this week.
How did Juventus’s midfield work?
During Pogba’s spell in Turin, which spanned between 2012 and 2016, the Bianconeri, under managers Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri, often switched between a 4-3-1-2 and 3-5-2 system with Pogba – as Giggs touched upon – almost always playing on the left of that midfield triumvirate, somewhere he excelled to devastating effect.
Now Premier League rivals, Antonio Conte – whose position as Chelsea boss has become precarious in the last few weeks – can only look back on their time together with fondness.
“Honestly, I think he’s a massive player, Paul,” he said last season, essentially going on to make the case as to why Pogba is worth building a whole team around.
“He’s a really top player, a great talent, a complete player because he’s strong physically, fantastic technique, good stamina, he’s fast. He has the whole of the modern player. I know him very well and I know he’s a really top player. We understood very soon the capacity of this player [at Juventus].
“For this reason, only after three or four months, he was playing in the starting XI. Then he learned a lot that season. Paul is always a player who can change a game. He’s a player who stays at a level so high.”
If we focus on their 4-3-1-2, at the base of the diamond was puppet master Andrea Pirlo, who made the deep-lying playmaker role his own, with Claudio Marchisio starting on the opposite end to Pogba and Arturo Vidal playing behind their busy centre-forwards (notably Carlos Tevez).
Going back to Juve’s central midfielders; Pogba and Marchisio worked together as the classic ‘number six and eight’ tandem. Marchisio, who sees himself more of a ‘number eight’, wins possession and effectively distributes. Pogba, meanwhile, was a throwback to an old-fashioned robust box-to-box midfielder. a threat in the opposition half and a a presence in his own.
As you can see, each brought something to Juve and, combined, it made their midfield one of the most envious in Europe.
So, here are three ways Manchester United could develop their own version.
1. The stop-gap solution
The winter transfer window shut a few days ago and the next opportunity for United boss Jose Mourinho to spend is a while away.
So it’s a simple case of making do with what you have. Historically, this is where the Portuguese tactician has often excelled, tweaking his tried and tested system to obtain whatever the objective is.
Already this season, Mourinho has utlised no fewer than six different formations across 38 matches in all competitions: 4-2-3-1 (21), 3-5-2 (7), 4-3-3 (6), 4-4-2 (2), 3-4-1-2 (1) and 4-1-4-1 (1).
Mourinho, though, is no stranger to playing a 4-3-1-2 shape. He’s employed it 67 times in his near 20-year managerial career though you have to go back to May 2010, final month as Inter Milan boss, for the last time one of his teams began in that shape.
If he was to introduce this way of playing to Old Trafford, you can’t say he doesn’t have the personal to make it operational. Pogba will naturally play on the left with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera alongside him. Alexis Sanchez, the club’s pitbull with patience, can sit behind a Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford front line.
2. A summer spree?
There’s no question United will be spending in the summer. It wasn’t long ago that Mourinho said £300m isn’t enough for them to compete.
One area he’ll be focusing on, now he’s signed on until 2020, is the midfield seeing as neighbours Manchester City have shown what a well-oiled machine in the centre of the park is truly capable of. But one piece of the jigsaw could already be right under his nose. Step forward, Scott McTominay.
The 21-year-old, who made his Red Devils debut under Mourinho, has been lauded by his manager recently for his ability to keep things simple, and legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was filmed (apparently) advising his successor to pick him more often during a ceremony remembering the families and victims of the Munich air disaster this week.
Nominally an attacking midfielder, McTominay has shown the wherewithal to play a little deeper, and could be United’s ‘number eight’ going forward. If the club’s captain in waiting, Pogba, takes up what is his best position then who plays as the regista and number 10? Well, two players continually linked with the 20-time English champions.
For the former it’s tailor-made for Fabinho, currently playing his last matches for Monaco, and the latter could be filled by Vidal, who many predict will be leaving Bayern Munich in the summer following the acquisition of Leon Goretzka.
It means we could also be treated to a Lukaku-Sanchez axis up front.
3. Turning to Utd’s academy
Maybe, just maybe, Mourinho will do something that is usually not associated with him and put all his eggs in the United academy basket rather than splashing the cash.
Of course, he’d be the first to remind you of his record with giving young players a chance, and it’s fair to say this reputation of being the “monster that kills the little kids” is a tad unfair.
In fact, Mourinho has given more minutes to his club’s academy products than any other Premier League manager this season, with the bulk of playing time shared between Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard.
And it’s Lingard, playing in the No.10 role, who has been grabbing the headlines of late. His performances in a 4-2-3-1 shape have made him undroppable but with a negative side effect: in order for Pogba to be accomodated, Mourinho has to deploy him as one of the two holding midfielders. And we recently saw why this isn’t a long-term solution in United’s 2-0 loss away to Tottenham Hotspur.
However, if Mourinho goes down this road opting for a hypothetical 4-3-1-2 formation, there will be a place for Lingard – playing in the hole behind their strikers – and the aforementioned Pogba and McTominay will United’s numbers 6 and 8 while Matic operates in between them.
There will be a nice balance and you’ll get the best out of those graduates, as the Red Devils continue their climb back to the top seat of English football, and doing so while honouring their proud heritage.