Paul Pogba may well be the most gifted player to come out of Manchester United’s famed academy. Such is the talent of this tall, graceful, powerfully built Frenchman. Superb ball control, mesmerizing dribbling skills, excellent passing and shooting off both feet, powerful running and excellent vision. Here’s a man who has the ability to do it all; who has all the trappings to become a true Man United great. Yet, unless he adapts his game to the needs of his team, he may never quite attain the legendary status of United greats of yore.
Much has been made over the past few days of the mid-game pitch side discussion between Pogba and Jose Mourinho as Spurs ran roughshod over United at Wembley last week. It clearly spoke volumes about Pogba’s performance in that match. This wasn’t, I’d wager, a case of Mourinho passing on new instructions to his midfield star. If nothing else, Mourinho is well known for his match preparation: Spurs tactics were no surprise that needed adjusting to. The manager was clearly not pleased about how his instructions were being interpreted on the field. That Mourinho would ultimately sub off his star midfielder – with 30 minutes left of a tough game against top four rivals – only confirmed that notion.
And it was clear to see. Time and again, Spurs played right through the heart United’s midfield, with Pogba often out of his position, alongside Nemanja Matic in Mourinho’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Of course, many have blamed that formation for Pogba’s issues. He’s an attacking midfielder, goes the argument, he shouldn’t be burdened with such defensive responsibility. He functions best in a midfield three, goes another argument, the manager needs to adapt the formation to suit his strengths.
I think this goes beyond formations though. Honestly, it’s not as though Pogba is always out of position, even in a 4-2-3-1. There are times when he is there, but the desire to defend just seems lacking, or at best half-hearted. Too often, the extent of his defensive efforts is a slow jog one way and then the other, a dangled leg here and there, but hardly any real intensity or aggression.
Mourinho’s comment following United’s routine 2-0 beating of Huddersfield on Saturday perhaps best encapsulates what I’m talking about. Speaking about the young Scott McTominanay – who started in place of Pogba – Mourinho said: “…he was fundamental for us in the way that he gave that desire to recover the ball and we could play.” I don’t know if this comment had anything to do with Pogba, but it is precisely that “desire to recover the ball” that was missing from Pogba’s game on Wednesday. And it was not the first time either; I noticed the same lackadaisical approach from the Frenchman when United beat Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates in December, on another day when the Gunners too easily found their way through United’s defensive shield and only David de Gea’s heroics secured the points.
Now, it could very well be that Pogba isn’t quite cut out for that double pivot role in a 4-2-3-1 – perhaps a role in the three behind the striker is best – but the suggestion that a 4-3-3 would ask less of him defensively holds little water. Anyone who has watched Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool would know that the midfield three in that 4-3-3 have a lot of defensive responsibility as well, especially in big games against top four rivals. Even an obviously attack-minded player like Phil Coutinho did his fair share of tracking back and picking up runners when played in that role. Central midfield players at this level simply cannot escape this – just watch Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva at Man City, another team that play those two attack-minded players in a midfield three.
I touched on adaptability earlier and the best example comes from perhaps the standard bearer of United greats of the past two decades: Roy Keane. Most of us remember Keane as the hard tackling, snarling midfield enforcer of the best United sides between 1994 and 2003. But I’m sure die-hard United fans of a certain vintage will remember that Keane arrived from Nottingham Forest as an attack-minded, box to box midfielder with an eye for goal. He still scored some important goals in his time at Old Trafford, but that was hardly a focus of his game over the years as he slowly evolved and adapted his style for the good of the team. It’s one of the reasons he will go down as a true legend of the club.
Keane was, of course, captain of the team for years, a role which calls for even more responsibility than his central midfield role demanded, and he was seldom – if ever – found wanting when his team needed him. He seemed to take it as a personal affront if an opponent got past him. But it wasn’t just him; everyone knows of Paul Scholes famed terrible tackling. But we only know of it because Scholes, one of the best attacking midfielders in United history, never shirked his defensive duties. He attempted every tackle – that “desire to recover the ball” – and earned his reputation as the “worst tackler” in the Premier League. Pogba could emulate that “desire” – not the execution, of course. Even David Beckham – right winger, free kick specialist, bender of balls, creator of goals – proved incredibly hardworking and wasn’t averse to the odd midfield scrap when he played centrally.
Paul Pogba, at 24, is still a young man with time to grow, but he is already Man United’s most important player, the man that makes them tick, and – with the ball at his feet – he is also their best player and one of the best players in the world. There’s little doubt that he’ll be official team captain one day.
But to carve his name amongst that of legendary United midfielders, he needs to do much more defensively – for the good of his team.