Paul Pogba is close to a return with Manchester United, and many hope to see him finally unleashed.
Manchester United have never really seen the best of Paul Pogba. There were moments, especially in 2016/17 when he was a key figure as they won the Europa League, but he has since chafed against former boss Jose Mourinho, and has been injured for most of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure.
What has held Pogba back? Well the argument has always been that he needs the team built around him. Then there was the argument that he didn’t have good enough team-mates. Well Bruno Fernandes’ arrival has nixed that issue, so what about the system?
Well, looking at the system that last got the best out of him, your attention turns to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where France triumphed in Russia, and Pogba managed the impressive feat of improving his performances with each successive match, culminating in a superb display during the showpiece final.
That begs the question: could the France system be transposed to Manchester United? Would it accommodate both Pogba and Fernandes? We’ve gone through the key roles to see which United player could be the best fit.
The Last Line
The goalkeeper and centre-backs of the French team didn’t play in a particularly unique way. They were just good (Hugo Lloris) or absolutely brilliant (Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti) at their jobs. So, there is not really a unique way for United’s defenders to fit into this system. But they would demand quality, given the side plays transition football, with the defenders spending a lot of time on the back-foot.
Luckily for Manchester United they have David de Gea in goal who, even though he isn’t at his best these days, can still match Lloris’ level from 2018. Harry Maguire is a sublime centre-back who just about falls short of the absurd abilities Varane and Umtiti were showing in Russia (they were arguably the two best centre-backs in the world at the time), but he is a solid stopper and a capable leader. When partnered with Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly, he has proven capable of bringing defensive solidity to Solskjaer’s backline.
The Example: Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez
The Role: Pavard and Lucas (natural centre-backs) played wide ahead of Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy, in part because of fitness concerns but also because Didier Deschamps liked how defensively solid they made the team.
The duo had to get forward and provide width (linking up for Pavard’s stunning goal against Argentina) but their primary concern was to prevent goals going in. A case in point being that no Frenchman made more tackles at the World Cup than Lucas Hernandez’s 16. In fact, only Casemiro of Brazil made more across the tournament with 17.
The Candidates: Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams (and Luke Shaw)
United are well-placed to fill this role given that both Wan-Bissaka and Williams are full-backs with their strongest attributes being defensive ones. Wan-Bissaka, in particular, is a supernatural defensive talent who can lock down his entire flank. Luke Shaw is something of a wildcard here, in that he can be a good defender but can also be a bit of a weak-link in a back-four. It’s likely he will end up being the Mendy in this scenario, with Williams’ no-nonsense ruggedness winning out.
The Example: N’Golo Kante
The Role: Far from being a relentless pressing machine, Kante spent the World Cup shielding the back-line. He made at least 12 more interceptions than any French player (20) and swept the space ahead of his defenders superbly. Moreover, with the ball, he was a constant outlet for his side, making more passes than all of his team-mates (361).
The Candidate: Fred
The Brazilian has always played best as a No. 8, but he has the passing ability and defensive instincts to sweep things up rather than get involved in duels. Like Kanté, Fred has made more interceptions (36) and passes (1,536) than any other midfielder for United so far this season.
The Example: Blaise Matuidi
The Role: Like a shot of Red Bull combined with a ladder… Matuidi provided energy and verticality. He helped out defensively, making tackles and getting stuck in, but then also served as an outlet for his side with his surging runs forward.
The Candidate: Scott McTominay
The Scot was basically born to play this role. McTominay has technical skill but his best attribute by far is his stamina and physical presence, two attributes that are needed to play this shuttle role. McTominay would play on the right of a midfield three (Matuidi was on the left) but otherwise it’s a hand-in-glove fit.
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The Example: Paul Pogba
The Role: Pogba played deeper in Russia, a role that was at times like Christian Karembeu’s from France’s 1998 World Cup side, and at times like Zinedine Zidane’s from that same team. He wasn’t the chief chance-maker but was the man who set the table. No Frenchman played more passes into the final third than Pogba did with 69.
The Candidate: Paul Pogba
United have tried to use Pogba in his Juventus role of an attacking, free-roaming No. 10, but this deeper role could suit him, and his superb passing range just as well. He’d be on the left rather than the right (due to the preferred side of the shuttle). The main problem with playing Pogba deep before was United’s lack of creativity in the final third, but Bruno Fernandes has changed all that.
The Workhorse 10
The Example: Antoine Griezmann
The Role: At the World Cup Griezmann had to put all his training under Diego Simeone to practice in a role that required him to do a bit of everything. The Frenchman had to be the chief reference in the final third, take all the set-pieces to an absurdly high-level (since France weren’t an expansive side) and put in a serious defensive shift.
The Candidate: Bruno Fernandes
The Portuguese has already proven he is skilled at set-pieces. He’s already proven capable of not only being a reference in the final third but lifting team-mates to play better with the strength of his associative play, and he’s already shown he is willing and able to put a shift in defensively to help out. This role is perfect for him.
The Example: Olivier Giroud
The Role: Giroud didn’t score a single goal at the World Cup, and whilst that wasn’t by design, the fact he could be so profligate and not overly hurt the team shows that his key role was simply that of a target man. Someone to occupy centre-backs, pull the ball down and play it off to his more talented team-mates.
The Candidate: Odion Ighalo
Obviously Anthony Martial is superior to Ighalo and capable of linking play, but he does it in more of a Karim Benzema style, where he roams about the pitch to always be involved. Deschamps has made a point of avoiding Benzema to the extreme and, okay, there are other reasons there but he doesn’t even seem fond of players who play like him, i.e. Martial and Alexandre Lacazette.
Ighalo meanwhile is a big, strong striker with a great work ethic, excellent target-man ability and is far more skilled than he’s given credit for. He’s not the best, but he does what he has to for the good of the team. It fits.
The Example: Kylian Mbappe
The Role: Mbappe was often the entire France attack, especially in the second halves of games. The French really relied on the teenager to be their vertical threat, and he delivered emphatically.
The Candidate: Marcus Rashford
This seems too obvious. Rashford and Mbappe are two incredibly similar players. Both tall, lithe, young strikers with obscene pace and the ability to play wide or up-front (but not as a No. 9). Both men can dribble and both exploded onto the scene as teenagers. Mbappe has been much better, obviously, but then he has never had Jose Mourinho as his manager, so it’s not like there’s lightyears between them.
Rashford broke his back carrying United for half a season, especially in the big games, where he scored or assisted eight of the 11 goals United put past the ‘Big Six’ — as well as Leicester — this season. He would play more from the left whereas Mbappe was from the right, but he fits this phenom role perfectly. A deadly weapon to drive the dagger in.