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Tactical Analysis: Paul Pogba’s positional conundrum

I would say midfielder on the left. If you play a three I can play on the right of left, but I feel more comfortable to play on my left.” Those were the words from the man himself Paul Pogba from his interview with Thierry Henry and Sky Sports back in 2016 – Pogba was describing to Henry the position he feels most comfortable on the football pitch.

Paul Pogba is perceived as one of world football’s most divisive talents. To many, he’s an established superstar; a World Cup winner, and a Champions League finalist with ability some could only wish for and a personality to match. To others he consistently flatters to deceive, failing to reach the heights the hype around him suggests he could but the one question that has always loomed over Pogba especially during his time at Manchester United has been – What is Paul Pogba’s best position ?

The Frenchmen has had an impressive start to the 2021/22 Premier League season – racking up 7 assists in his first four games whilst playing on the left in a half-winger role of a 4-2-3-1. In this period many United fans would say it’s the most comfortable and effective Pogba has looked in a United shirt. Does it answer the question: Is Paul Pogba better suited further up the pitch in a more unorthodox position ?

In this article, I will delve into why the positional revival of Pogba has come at a good time for United and the player and why it’s important it continues.

Pogba’s ineffectiveness overshadows his effectiveness from a deeper role

The debate over his best position is symptomatic of a more notable issue; that Pogba’s strengths and weaknesses complement each other extremely badly. Paul Pogba is widely regarded as one of the world’s best deep-lying playmakers – with his elite distribution, artistic passing, and ability to beat his opposition marker off the dribble with ease including a unique mix of physicality and technical proficiency makes him any manager’s dream for a central midfielder. But he also has substantial weaknesses that limit his effectiveness specifically under José Mourinho during his time at United – Pogba found himself less expressive of the midfielder he was appreciated for and more restricted in a position that truly doesn’t allow him to display the talent that is Paul Labile Pogba and has highlighted his clear weaknesses in his game; defensively – his poor defensive abilities and propensity to get caught in possession due to lapse in concentration get exposed.

Role at Juventus – the positional discovery of Paul Pogba

At Juventus, Pogba played on the left in a midfield 3 with Marchisio and him on either side of the sitting Pirlo in Allegri’s narrow 4-3-1-2 formation. Pogba had the aging but formidable Patrice Evra as a marauding full-back – that would offer width and leave the left half-space for Pogba to occupy in. As seen in the image below

This is a attacking phase that happened a lot for Juventus during that season. Pogba would pick up the ball in the left half-space and look to create inside, he would have Evra providing underlapping or overlapping runs that would create space for Pogba to come inside or would release the ball to Evra who’s arriving late into the box.

Story of Pogba under Ole Gunnar Solskjær

Once Solskjær arrived at a toxic United team atmosphere halfway through 2018/19 season – which Pogba had been the main scapegoat under then-manager José Mourinho, he instantly made an evident switch from the pragmatic and rigid 4-2-3-1 to a more free-flowing and fluid 4-3-1-2 – that would see the Frenchmen pivotal in United’s surprising upturn in form and a run in form that would see the Norwegian become the permanent manager of the club. In Solskjær’s system Pogba occupied a position identical to the position he played at Juventus as previously touched upon, he played on the left of a midfield 3 behind a front 3 of wide forwards that would occupy narrow positions – this allowed Pogba to get in wider areas without clashing with other players similar positions i.e. Rashford/Martial runs on the ball from out to in. Now in midfield, again Solskjær implements a very similar setup to Allegri’s Juventus 14/15 – Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera provided stability and protection that would allow Pogba to flourish in a more advanced role – ranking first in all the attacking metric for the club. As seen in the graphic below.

via GIPHY

In late December, Pogba picked up a serious ankle injury that would see him out until the end of the season (Coronavirus impacted the latter stages of the footballing season and meant Premier League football would return to action on June 17) this meant that Solskjær needed a creative midfielder preferably one that could operate in the No.10 position – a position United were in clearly in dire need with the underperforming Jesse Lingard and underwhelming Andreas Pereira just not performing to the level that was needed. So in came Bruno Fernandes whose arrival was much needed and his impact shown that but it was a detriment to a certain individual whose creative baton was taken from beneath him as the attack had a new leading man. Pogba was given even more defensive responsibility to allow Bruno to essentially take up a free roam role – where he could take up whatever position in the attacking third to create and hurt the opposition. But when Pogba made the rare stroll into the final third – Fernandes’ presence was the reason Pogba is not able to get forwards as often, the Portuguese playmaker provided another passing option for Pogba to look for from deep positions.

Revival of Pogba positionally 

Coming back from injury, United had developed a settled partnership in Scott McTominay and Fred. Solskjær had to find a solution. He needed to get one of United’s best players, if not the best player on the field. The solution meant Pogba was deployed on the left-hand side of a 4-2-3-1 and had a role similar to a traditional Mezzala ( but with a wider starting position) – once again, a position similar to where he flourished when Ole initially came in. The position revival from Solskjær and specifically for Pogba was a revelation – Pogba regained the swagger and confidence he was known for. The advantage of having Pogba operating in the final third with regularity meant it took some of the creativity off Bruno Fernandes. 

Pogba’s 20/21 season performance [@chunhang7]

Pogba has carried on his outstanding performance from the backend of the last season to this season and it’s shown with the Frenchmen leading the Premier League in assists and he’s shown no signs of stopping – It’s important to note 5 of Pogba’s 7 assists have come from the left of Manchester United attack quartet and the other 2 have came from his late display against Newcastle, which once again highlights the increase in productivity when playing on the left-wing. 

Pogba 21/22 season performance so far [@chunhang7]

Conclusion 

To conclude, Pogba is a phenomenal footballer and has so much incredible ability, no matter what you have to find a place for him in your team. His game has transitioned into a half-winger player especially in the modern game – his attacking strengths are put on full display and his weakness are not a major concern for the team anymore whereas in the pivot those specific weaknesses would be magnified. Paul Pogba may not be Manchester United’s most important player but certainly has the skillset that makes him important to any team. 

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