Can Manchester United fans finally see the best of the Frenchman?
The FA Cup final is the last bastion of the English domestic season before a summer of transfers and rumours engulf us once again. Manchester United will be hoping for a third trophy in two seasons and a chance to add some more competition winning experience to their ranks. However, their second place finish this season is marred by the nineteen point deficit between them and City, with rumours already gathering pace of a summer clearout at Old Trafford.
And yet, in their ranks they arguably already posses a potent, albeit currently blunted, weapon to help them claw back the gap with their city rivals. Paul Pogba has so far cut a frustrated figure in United colours, with only flashes of the brilliance he is capable of. Perhaps before the millions begin to flow between club accounts Manchester United could look again at the Frenchman and work out how make him shine in their midfield.
This season has been perhaps the most frustrating in the Frenchman’s career, when in all probability it looked as though it could be his best. Matic’s signing from Chelsea was a shrewd move from Mourinho as he looked to be building a midfield full of guile and creativity. They started the league well as did Pogba. However injury struck him down, mid-autumn, just as he was picking up some exciting form and from then on things have gone downhill for him.
He hasn’t looked as sharp or confident since, and a lack of consistency in terms of playing position has really hurt him. The player has been criticised for being too passive as matches come and go without the French International having much impact. Whether this is down to the injury worry or a general dulling down of his effectiveness by playing in the position on the pitch, is unknown to most.
This stuttering form perhaps reached is nadir against Sevilla in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. Pogba started both legs on the bench and was anonymous when brought on as United crashed out to a vastly inferior and defensively poor side. Mourinho said a prior illness had caused fitness concerns as the inquest began. Whatever the reasons, surely the former academy star was re-signed to help united rejoin the European elite, to miss out on a winnable quarterfinal tie should be a real disappointment for all concerned parties.
Not a number six?
Pogba has often been deployed in a midfield two alongside Matic. It is in these games that he has been largely criticized by fans and pundits for being too pedestrian. However it is harsh to lambast him if he is being played out of position and hindered by a rigid tactical constraint.
For a significant part of his second spell at Manchester United he has been playing with a handbrake on, appearing somewhat overwhelmed by defensive duties at he drops deep with Matic in stagnant games. He has been at his best without doubt when playing on the left of a midfield three with Herrera and Matic doing a lot of the defensive work.
Set up to play to his strengths
One of the most impressive aspects of his game is his passing range. He is capable of slicing open a back line with a beautifully weighted and timed release, as seen in Euro 2016 when France played some really eye catching football. He also used it to great effect at Juventus playing alongside Khedira and Pirlo as the Old Lady dominated their domestic league. Pogba notched in sixteen assists in his final season in Italy and chipped in with ten goals as he clicked up a gear.
Too often United have been stifled and frustrated at home with teams playing for draws and often getting them. They really are missing a trick in deploying their £89 million man so deep. You need a way of getting around or through deep sitting defences. Pogba’s clever and broad passing range could be this potent weapon. If Mourinho is willing to take the handbrake off and allow more freedom for the Frenchman, we could really see a different United side next season.
A player with such gifted movement and passing needs runners and intelligence in front of him. Philippe Coutinho blossomed at Liverpool when the likes of Mane, Suarez, Firmino and Salah were deployed in front of him, allowing the Brazilian to spot opportunities and play some lovely balls through or over stubborn defences. He was more famed for his quick feet and trickery, but Coutinho was most effective when he could create chances for those ahead of him. Pogba is similar in this regard.
The Frenchman no doubt has the capability of joining the attack, but for United he really is most effective as a creator on the left of that midfield three. It is must be concerning then to see the likes of Rashford and Martial marginalized at the club. Both have been linked with summer moves away from Old Trafford which would be a real shame from a purist point of view.
Both offer Pogba speed and movement for his passing radar; they could flourish with his creative intelligence supplying them regularly in the Premier League. They also have Sanchez at the club, who could provide the runs and movement to create real discomfort for deep sitting backlines, all playing to Pogba’s strengths as he looks to make chances from the chaos. Sanchez and Pogba certainly linked up very well in the FA Cup Semi-Final which should be encouraging going into next season.
This leaves us with Lukaku. The Belgian has done what he was signed for this season. The goals have gone in with pleasing regularity, but while he remains as the sole true forward in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Pogba will likely be the one to drop deeper. Mourinho has always played with a big number nine, from Drogba to Milito; it’s his bread and butter. But is this a style that will help close the gap on City’s swaggering football? At times it has looked antiquated this season. Yes United have finished comfortably ahead of free flowing Spurs and Liverpool, but they’ve done it by playing by the numbers and alienated some of their fans with a negative, direct approach.
The Portuguese is unlikely to change his methods, especially as he is doing a good job at Old Trafford. However the fans will not tolerate their city rivals dominating so easily again next season. He has tried his old ways this year with Lukaku up front and being rather direct at times, will his hand be forced next season if we are all squinting at Guardiola’s men on the horizon?
It would certainly be a shame to waste Pogba’s talents while, for the time being, he remains content in Manchester. He has the ability and presence to have a team built around him. But next season will be his third since his high profile transfer from Juventus, he may not get a fourth if things don’t go to plan again.