The Paradox of Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba is a talented footballer.
He was moulded at the famed Le Havre in his early teenage years, before moving to Manchester United and climbing through the youth ranks. But after three years of limited involvement with the first team, he decided to leave on a free to Juventus, where he built a reputation for being a physically dominant midfielder with an eye for goal and unbelievable skill with the ball.
Yet since his move back to United for the then-world record fee of £89 Million his club form has been erratic, and in stark contrast to how he plays for France - as the most commanding presence on the pitch, who single-handedly wins games and almost always stands out in the most stacked team of eleven players you will find on the planet.
So what is the reason behind the dichotomous nature of Paul Pogba? And how does he start performing for his club side again?
Pogba for France
The 2018 World Cup is probably the best representation of the 1.9 metre tall Frenchman’s true ability.
He and N’Golo Kanté became the perfect partnership and were the foundation for France winning their second World Cup, culminating in a goal for Pogba himself in the final.
During the tournament he started 6 out of the 7 games, only being substituted once in the 88th minute vs Peru. France played a fluid 4-2-3-1, something manager Didier Deschamps had a particular liking for - one which often morphs into a lopsided 4-4-2 diamond during matches themselves.
Pogba nominally operated on the right side of the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1, and as the corresponding right central midfielder in the 4-4-2 diamond. He was the creative presence in midfield, looking to transition the ball from defence into attack and also play the occasional but brilliant diagonal through ball that would split open the opposition and exploit the pace of Mbappé on the right or the overlapping fullback Lucas Hernández on the left.
And this tactic worked like a charm, with a remarkable balance being struck between flamboyance and defensive rigour.
But why was it such a success?
The answer is simple; it catered to Pogba’s deficiencies and allowed him to shine. United’s record signing has an unbelievable passing range, extraordinary vision, and skill to get out of tight situations. But he is also prone to leaving too much space behind him when defending counter attacks and simply being in the wrong position when needed most; essentially being the weakest link in the midfield when France were defending deeper.
So to counteract this, Deschamps placed Pogba next to two defensively minded players in Kante and Matuidi, who were both mobile, excellent at covering spaces and the antithesis of Pogba in that they were not eager to push forward. So whenever Pogba was out of position, he always had someone to cover him, which allowed him the opportunity to roam free and be truly expressive with his eye-catching capacity to beat a man and split open defences.
Kanté especially was the Yin to Pogba’s Yang, seemingly able to be everywhere on the pitch at once, rarely making a mistake, and being one of the best 1v1 defenders in the world.
In essence, Pogba was not expected to defend much and could rely on his other teammates to cover for him - leading to world-class display after world-class display when in France’s distinct navy blue.
So what is the difference at Manchester United?
Much like Deschamps, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has employed a 4-2-3-1 for much of his reign at United - but there is a key distinction between that and the one that is used for France; outside of a little rotation between Rashford and Martial should both play, it is relatively rigid.
So for United, Pogba does not start at CDM then shift out to the right or left - he remains there for the entire game. Therein is the first problem; Pogba gains several defensive responsibilities that do not exist for France, and has been shifted deeper - further away from the opposition goal.
To add to that he no longer has the imperious Kante beside him to offset any shortfallings.
Pogba has been partnered by many players in the double pivot in his time at United, namely Nemanja Matić, Fred, Scott McTominay, and Ander Herrera. Outside of Fred, none of these players are any form of fast, and what the Brazilian makes up for in speed he lacks in defensive intelligence and pure physicality.
As one can see, the inherent issue is obvious; the French international requires both a more mobile partner willing to do the dirty work in the double pivot and a slight in-game formation shift to allow him to perform at his mercurial best - to do so should elevate any team in the world.
But then why has Solskjær still not changed the formation?
The answer is one man: Bruno Fernandes. Since arriving at United the Portuguese has been astonishing, putting up incredible numbers and putting the Red Devils back into the conversation for a major trophy. And to switch things up for Pogba would be to disrupt Bruno’s position as a number 10 in the space behind the striker. This is not a risk the Norwegian manager is willing to take, and as such Pogba remains shrouded in his own shadows with the sterling performances he puts in for his country.
The only way to solve this, and still accommodate the two creative midfielders is to replicate their fierce rivals, Manchester City. The system is a 4-3-3 holding formation that has one defensive midfielder and two ‘free’ 8s. These two 8s would be Pogba and Fernandes and allow them both to flourish but still ensure defensive solidity.
But once again, United’s lack of a world-class defensive midfielder renders this tactic unusable. Having said that, the club has deep reserves to call upon, and the potential to spend money on a player to fill that hole. One player that comes to mind is Lyon’s Thiago Mendes. He has pace, is strong, and positionally intelligent. The best part? United could probably get him for just £20M.
But the Reds have never been known for making astute, cheap signings, and someone like Mendes who would fail to create excitement among fans is probably not even on their radar.
Pogba will forever be remembered as one of the most divisive players in the history of football. Extremely talented but inconsistent, decisive on the big occasion but invisible on others, a French icon but held in contempt in England.
The Paradox of Paul Pogba is just another question in the world of football that might never truly be answered.
But until that day arrives, appreciate his good days, for with every moment of magic comes 90 minutes of complete unremarkableness.