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Paul Pogba

Manchester United, 2016-Present

Profile
Paul Pogba entered the 2018/19 Premier League season after an extremely successful summer during which he played a significant role in France winning the 2018 World Cup. Featuring in a midfield three with N’Golo Kante and either Blaise Matuidi or Corentin Tolisso, he demonstrated his quality with several dominant performances that showed why, at £89m, Manchester United and José Mourinho once made him the world’s most expensive player.

His performances raised expectations surrounding his return to club duty at United, but he again proved inconsistent – and United’s inability to challenge for the Premier League title led to Mourinho’s departure and the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In his first 20 appearances of the season, Pogba scored five goals, including three from the penalty spot; in the next 20, under Solskjaer, he scored nine times, including three penalties, and was increasingly creative. As United’s performances again declined towards the end of the campaign, he contributed just two further penalties, leading to renewed criticism.

That total of 16 goals in all competitions across a season represents the highest of Pogba’s career to date – his previous best was the 10 scored with Juventus in 2015/16 – even if eight of those were penalties. He also registered nine assists – one fewer than during the previous campaign.

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Role in 2018/19
At the season’s start under Mourinho, Pogba featured in a three-strong midfield alongside any two of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Fred. His role was to support possession during build-up phases when the ball was on his side, or to push towards the opposition’s midfield. When he received possession, he often then looked to switch play with long diagonal balls or pass sideways or backwards as United attempted to advance.

The cautious nature of the midfield three’s positioning – they were regularly in front of the opposition’s – also made it difficult for him to penetrate and limited his influence in the attacking third. It was when he was able to play further forward that he provided an attacking threat by moving beyond the opposition’s midfield to receive possession between the lines, turn and advance (below). It was only after Solskjaer’s arrival as head coach, however, that this regularly happened.

Pogba was subsequently encouraged to play further forward during the build-up phases, to operate beyond midfield and make runs into the final third (below). This increased both the number of goalscoring chances he was presented with, and the number of goals with which he was involved – as demonstrated by his finishes in victories against Bournemouth, Chelsea and Fulham.

His role had thus evolved from featuring in a relatively rigid triangle that had a single pivot and required him sharing responsibility for covering central midfield amid limited rotation. Instead, he moved to the peak of a triangle, in front of two withdrawn midfielders and from where he could play with greater freedom and, at times, width.

Those changes in responsibility contributed to an increase in Pogba’s productivity and a significant change in tempo. If a teammate such as Juan Mata was instead used as an attacking midfielder, he would adopt a deeper position and contribute to the build-up at an earlier phase – while retaining the freedom to break lines with his movement as and when opportunity allowed.

Under Mourinho, United played with a 4-1-4-1 mid-block out of possession (above). In this system, Pogba attempted to apply mild pressure and focused on preventing passes being played through midfield.

When Solskjaer was appointed to succeed Mourinho in December, United became more proactive off the ball. Pogba was then encouraged to advance and support a higher press behind the forwards (below), ensuring he was already in an advanced position to offer a greater threat if and when possession was regained.

Role in 2019/20
The expectation is that Pogba will again be given an attacking midfield role during the coming 12 months, when United’s minimum aim will be to secure qualification for the Champions League.

If the statistics suggest he was better throughout 2018/19 than has widely been perceived, they also reveal both an inconsistent start to the season and the decline in his performances during the team’s final 10 league games.

Debate also rages about his off-the-ball contributions and reluctant recovery runs. At his finest, there is no doubt that Pogba is one of the most talented midfielders in the world. The question, whether he remains at Old Trafford or not, is how consistently he can show it.

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