The increasingly public spat between José Mourinho and Paul Pogba, sparked by the French midfielder’s recent underwhelming form, has provoked a lot of debate across the football-focused media about which of the two parties should carry the blame. Is it Mourinho’s fault for not playing Pogba in his reportedly preferred position? Or does the blame lay with Manchester United’s record signing and his seeming inability or unwillingness to adapt to the requirements of the role needed within the team’s structure?
This isn’t necessarily a new development with regard to Pogba, remembering back to Euro 2016 France manager Didier Deschamps faced a similar dilemma in how best to use Pogba. In the second round game against Ireland France started the match with a 4-3-3 system designed to try and get the best out of Pogba by playing him to the left of a midfield three just as he did for his club side Juventus, even though this forced Deschamps to sacrifice his other major creative force, Antoine Griezmann, by deploying him in a wide role.
Finding themselves a goal down at half-time Deschamps switched back to his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape, dropping Pogba deeper and moving Griezmann into his preferred role behind the striker, from there the Atletico Madrid star won the French the game and a place in the quarter finals.
It is often said in football that it isn’t the formation that matters but the players, and while it is certainly true that no amount of tactical alteration can compensate for players not having the requisite core skills and basic competencies, that notion would seem to oversimplify the modern game. To suggest that the system in which the players are set up is somehow of secondary importance to the individual abilities of the players.
As revered football analyst and author of the excellent ‘Inverting the Pyramid; the History of Football Tactics’, Johnathan Wilson has suggested: ‘Nobody ever played a game of football without both players and tactics. It’s simply not possible: as soon as there is more than one player, there is necessarily a relationship between them and, however little thought goes into that, that is tactical.’
Referring back to Pogba, there seems to be a general consensus amongst pundits and analysts that he is most suited to a role in a midfield three, just as Deschamps tried to use him for France; Thierry Henry saying after he starred in that role at Goodison Park on New Year’s Day: ‘he can play in a lot of positions but that (the left of the midfield three) is where he is at his best. That was vintage Juve Pogba.’
It would seem hard to argue against that perspective, especially having witnessed how Pogba seems to struggle in a deeper role which requires defensive discipline and restraint of his natural instincts to drive forward and to get involved further up the field. At the same time, it seems that Mourinho is steadfastly unwilling to disrupt the balance of his team and deviate from his trusted 4-2-3-1 set-up and specifically the greater protection that this affords the back four.
As such Pogba is stuck, he seems to lack the positional sense and tactical mindset to be able to effectively fulfil the role that seems to have been earmarked for him since his signing, and yet the form of Jesse Lingard this season and the very recent arrival of Alexis Sánchez suggest that at least two of the attacking midfield positions he covets may have already been filled, at least for the foreseeable future.
How this all plays out remains to be seen, in time it may be that the player develops the discipline required and grows into the role which he has been given, or that the manager alters his tactical set-up to better play to Pogba’s undoubted attributes, or even that the pair meet somewhere in the middle. Having said that though would it really surprise any of us if Pogba ended up departing, becoming the latest in a series of high profile players that the self-appointed ‘Special One’ has failed to get the best out of?
One only needs to consider the handling of Kevin De Bruyne, Mo Salah and United’s very own Romelu Lukaku during their time under Mourinho’s management at Chelsea to realise that in order to develop into the player that his undoubted potential suggests he can be Pogba may have to seek pastures new.