OPINION: The Reason why Paul Pogba’s Positional debate is over the top.

It’s been 4 years since Manchester United have signed Paul Pogba and British pundits and some Manchester United fans do not hesitate to criticize the France international For his performances in a Manchester United shirt every now and then.

The most notable arguments have been about his inconsistency and his best position in the team. A fair amount of the Manchester United fan base wants Paul Pogba to be sold and move for the likes of Jack Grealish and Eduardo Camavinga as his successors.

Let me get things straight here. Paul Pogba is a very uniquely talented footballer. One of his kind & you will not get to see players of his kind very often in the world of Football. And yes, I do agree with the fact that his start to the 2020/21 Season has been very poor.

However, the point where I would disagree with most of the Manchester United fans or pundits is when they say that the club have not found the best position for Pogba. His best position has always been the left side of a midfield 3 & he can play on the right too, but his best position has always been either side of a midfield 3 (preferably left).

And Yes, Bruno Fernandes & Paul Pogba CAN definitely play in the same 11 & again they can do so in a 4–3–3 with Bruno on the right of the midfield 3 (which he has played on a numerous occasions for Sporting Lisbon & Portugal & is very familiar playing in that role) & Pogba on the left of the midfield 3.

Bruno’s stats playing as a Central Midfielder for Sporting Lisbon.

Now there a couple of reasons why United do not play a 4–3–3. The first & the most obvious reason being that Manchester United do not have a Mobile & Tenacious Central Defensive Midfielder who has got a good distribution.

Nemanja Matic, who is arguably the Club’s best Defensive Midfielder, lacks Mobility & tenacity & only tends to thrive when playing in a 2 with another partner as it makes his job much easier to cover only one side of the backline under his guard & it brings the better out of his ability to read the danger in a much more efficient manner. Fred on the other hand is Mobile, Tenacious, extremely brilliant while Pressing but lacks a good First Touch & can be poor with his distribution on a couple of occasions. Scott McTominay is a bit of strange one. He has got the mobility, physicality of being a good CDM for United but there are several basic elements to his game which are still in a development phase such as his ability to pick up a simple pass in front of him, to make up his mind on whether to make a tackle or interception or whether to hold by his position (decision making), positional sense & his distribution (which can be good & bad every now & then).

The Second issue being that United lack a physically strong & fast CB who is good at playing out from the back & distribute the ball quick enough to the midfield so that defense to attack transitions can be quicker. Dayot Upamecano, Gabriel Magalhaes, Pau Torres, Benoit Badiashile were all high on United’s radar in the summer but did not manage to get any of them & would certainly go hard on Upamecano come next summer. A certain Arsenal fan had said after the United v Arsenal match, that the amount of money United spent in the 2020 Summer Transfer market could’ve easily been spent Thomas Partey & Gabriel (who were both bought by Arsenal) if United had a more proactive recruitment setup & those 2 deals would’ve solved 2 major issues for United.

Most United fans know about the club’s CDM & CB issues & these are relevant arguments for Pogba’s “positional dilemma” because there is clear evidence in Pogba’s “Manchester United career” that he has thrived on a consistent basis in this position & system.

Paul Pogba was prolific in a United midfield that lacked creativity.

A trip back in memory lane to Ole Gunnar Solskajer’s interim reign as a United manager. The whole squad was in a terrible & a morally down state after Jose Mourinho’s sacking & had been playing with the shackles under him & Solskjaer’s appointment was about stabilizing the club’s situation & making the players enjoy their game & bringing back some positivity until the club searched for a New Permanent Manager (which was supposed to be Pochettino but we all know what happened after that & how Ole got the job). He played a 4–3–3 with Herrera, Matic & Pogba as his midfield 3.

The underappreciated work rate of Herrera & Matic’s prime form (with some legs left inside him back in 2018), Pogba was absolutely thriving in this system & was very consistent. People started to see what Pogba can do with freedom & hardworking, smart midfielders playing around him. Then, injuries hit United hard because the fitness levels of the United players under Jose were not particularly great & it led to injuries to both Matic & Herrera.

That was the exact time around when Ole got the permanent job & from a manager who could allow his players to express themselves & play with a lot of freedom as if there is nothing to lose, he turned into a manager who suddenly came into a top 4 race in which he was never meant to be, a manager who was scared of losing matches & his job & a manager who started becoming more & more cautious with his approach of games.

That was also the exact time when the Fred-McTominay Partnership started building up & it continued because of Ander Herrera leaving the club on a free for PSG. So, that is when Players were massively down on fitness (which in turn affected their form) & Solskjaer very rarely went back to a 4–3–3 & chipped & chopped a lot of different formations ever since that, which saw the likes of 4–4–2 Diamond, 3–4–1–2 & 4–2–3–1.

A glimpse of Pogba’s performances under Solskjaer’s interim reign playing in a 4–3–3

And there is even some bit more of evidence of Pogba’s brilliant performances in a 4–3–3 under Jose Mourinho on the backend of the 2017/18 season & Pogba’s most notable performance of them all is obviously the 3–2 win over Manchester City at the Etihad which showed the best way to make use of Pogba’s strengths like making runs into the box & causing disruption, something I expected to be seen even now ever since Bruno Fernandes & Paul Pogba started to play together but I have rarely witnessed it again because of the 2 major issues highlighted above.

A look at United’s Lineup vs Manchester City in 2018. Lingard played instead of Martial on the Right wing

What that CB & CDM would allow United to do is to use the more attacking elements of the Bruno-Pogba partnership. Pogba’s long range passing from a deeper position is something that has been on display throughout his United career. So, with Bruno’s ability to play in holes & now even with the likes of Donny Van De Beek who is a brilliant user of space, Pogba’s long range passing can be used at it’s absolute best, but unfortunately hasn’t been witnessed yet due to his positional restrictions. Also, with Pogba’s ability to make runs into the box, Bruno can stay behind & feed him the crosses/deliveries inside the box but again it would take the CDM for that to happen.

Solskjaer’s top targets such as Erling Haaland, a proper Number 9 with the ability to make those runs behind the backline, Jadon Sancho, a winger who would have helped United break down teams with a low block, would have all unleashed more out of Paul Pogba with their abilities stated here. The simple fact is there are still areas in that United team which not only need improvements for the club to make progress but also to bring the absolute best out of Paul Pogba from his best position. Especially with the right wing spot which was often seen being used to very good strengths in the French National team during the 2018 World Cup with the manner with which Pogba used to release Kylian Mbappe in open wide areas using his cross field diagonal passes.

A Brief example of how Pogba can Release Wingers.

With all of this being said, there is no denial in the fact that the Frenchman has had a poor start to the 2020/21 season & some of his poor performances had underlined his problems in a much more clearer manner than the previous seasons which are his vulnerabilities while playing as a deep lying Playmaker in a 4–2–3–1. Yes, he can very well play that role as he did brilliantly towards the backend of the 2019/20 season post Lockdown, but He can do that given Matic is in good form or Fred is playing next to him or else he would be massively exposed on the counters due to his lack of ability to track back quickly. That weakness of his was exposed in United’s humiliating 6–1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, 3–2 win against Brighton & 3–1 defeat to Crystal Palace.

Even during the poor start he has had this season, guess where his most decent performance came from? From the left side of a 3-man midfield of a 4–3–1–2 formation in the 5–0 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League. The reason why the same diamond formation did not work to its effect in the following game against Arsenal in the Premier League is because of the inclusion of Scott McTominay in the line-up instead of Nemanja Matic. Scott was deployed as a right sided midfielder but often ended up next to Fred, who was deployed as the CDM & United never really got hold of the ball & control in midfield in the 1st half & hence Pogba barely got opportunities to make a difference in that half. In the 2nd half, Ole went back to a 4–2–3–1 due to McTomiany’s positional troubles & pushed Pogba to the left wing which again exposed one of his major problems of tracking back which led him to make a lazy tackle on Hector Bellerin & Arsenal got the penalty which won them the game 1–0 & everyone started slating him.

Playing in a deeper role can suit Pogba’s areal ability to win headers but tracking back is something that he has always struggled with & in fact when United lost 2–1 to Sevilla in last Season’s Europa League Semi-Final, the midfield 3 of Fred, Pogba & Bruno in a 4–2–3–1 worked quite brilliantly which allowed Pogba the license to go even further forward than he gets to go while playing with Matic & Fred did his job of tracking in quite a good manner as well. But the poor defending from United’s backline cost them the game & we never got to see these 3 playing together in the same team again.

Pogba’s areal ability playing in a deeper role has still been quite good which saw him average about 2 Areal Duals won per game

I believe that the more you would want to make use of the offensive side of Pogba, the better because some of these defensive liabilities of his existed in his defensive side of the game throughout his career. So, blaming it all on him at United is very unfair. And to be very honest, some people never have been satisfied with Pogba’s performances anyway! If he puts up a good attacking display, people want him to do more defensively. If he does a disciplined defensive job, people want more offensive output from him.

Like it or not, with the Premier League & much of football in general being the way it is now a days, it is nearly next to impossible for a footballer to produce immense amount of defensive as well as offensive outputs week in & week out & then expect to be fit enough to play in about 85% of a 60–65 game season for a period of about 11–12 months. Footballers are humans after all & people must understand that.

A lot of “criticism” that Paul Pogba receives is very unfair & ridiculously harsh. And to state his £89 Million Price Tag as a reason for that is very naïve because clearly, he has not been used in the right manner to the best of his strengths. And no matter how much you say it, People would always want to have a pop at Pogba & state that he is inconsistent.

This season, United have not had a proper preseason & due to that, not just Paul Pogba but majority of the squad massively underperformed in the opening 4–5 games. The fitness levels were massively contrasting to what they were post lockdown & amidst all of that Pogba also contracted the COVID-19 virus, which to be fair is highly unpredictable in terms of the effects or after-effects it can cause on the human body.

Matic’s return to form would massively help Pogba & United as a whole.

Paul has not looked himself at all, his fitness has been a big downside & the dip in the form of Matic is also one of the factors which has contributed to his poor start this season. But with all that being said, we are only about into the first 8 Games of the season & Pogba’s poor form has clearly been exaggerated massively. If Ole does decide to play the diamond in the way he did against Leipzig or if Nemanja Matic gets back to his post lockdown form of 2019/20 in a 4–2–3–1, Pogba would be fine during the remainder of the 2020/21 season.

This opinion/article piece of mine is in no way a Paul Pogba fanboy write up or anything like that. It is just about my opinion on some of the things about Paul Pogba & it was about me under lining some of the issues on which he is very unfairly criticized for by people often. And I also do not intend to say that any player is bigger than the club, that is simply never the case! A team is always bigger than any individual & a player is always as good as his teammates.

I would not be massively against the thought of selling Pogba & cashing in on him for the right value which for me has to be greater than or equal to 90 million even though he is on his last 2 years of his contract & the COVID market has affected the market values. He is United’s most marketable & profitable asset & the club need to make the most of it in order to acquire the right financial goods to replace him if & when he does leave. I am not sure about what I think about the potential Cristiano Ronaldo & Paul Pogba direct swap deal rumors. I don’t particularly buy into the credibility of it & am not sure about my stance if it were true in any sense.

But as long as the present is concerned, Pogba is at United & he is a supremely talented footballer who needs to be made good use of at the club(as long as he stays) given all the qualities & attributes he possesses. And finally, whoever thinks that he is not a good player or United cannot find a best position for him need to really get some context & do some deep fact digging about his time at Manchester United.

Sport Enthusiast! Keen to learn & implement my programming & Tech based learnings in the field of Sport. Also an Aspiring Football Data Scientist.