On Saturday, Paul Pogba and Manchester United fell to their hated rival, Manchester City, two goals to one. Aside from the outcome, the world’s most expensive player struggled to leave a lasting impression on his first Manchester Derby of the season.
Much has been said about the role Manchester United’s big money summer transfer Paul Pogba is supposed to play inside Jose Mourinho’s setup.
Blessed with the physical qualities to play in any midfield role, his successes with Juventus came from playing mostly on the left of a three-man alignment. However, Mourinho has a vastly different approach to the game than Massimiliano Allegri.
On Saturday, Mourinho fielded his Red Devils in the following 4-2-3-1 formation against Manchester City:
de Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw; Fellaini, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Lingard; Ibrahimovic
The Frenchman started in the double-pivot along with Marouane Fellaini as a defensive midfielder. Certainly, this is not the ideal role for the French international, as past performances, notably under Didier Deschamps at the Euro, indicate that he is wasted deep in front of the back four.
Pogba has nearly every individual quality you could desire in a midfielder: Exceptional size and strength, flair, technique and a distinct eye for goal outside the box. By being deployed in a defensive role, the 23-year old is limited in how far forward he can move in order to to exemplify those abilities.
In the first half versus Manchester City, Pogba struggled to find himself. At times, he looked out of sorts; Quiet and uncomfortable when trying to provide in build-up play.
It almost seemed as if he was non-existent. Few times was his name mentioned. When he did find the ball at his feet, the skill we witnessed over the four years in Turin were on display albeit in brief spells.
Statistics are incredible tidbits of information to understand and project player performance, but they do not tell the entire story. That is the case for Paul Pogba in his Manchester Derby debut cameo since moving back to his academy club on an audacious £89.3m transfer.
Per Who Scored, the gifted midfielder performed to a 7.4 match rating, a number slightly above what most would have given him.
His passing accuracy of 77% and three aerials won give the impression that he was as good as any United midfielder, but Paul will always be held to a different standard with the lofty tag hanging above his nicely manicured hair.
In the second half, Mourinho made adjustments, both tactically and with his personnel. Former Borussia Dortmund dynamo Henrikh Mkhitaryan was subbed off for Ander Herrera, and Jesse Lingard was swapped for Marcus Rashford – who the majority think should have gotten the starting nod from the jump.
On the rare occasion, Pogba began to find comfort and rhythm once he found himself in a more advanced position in the second half. Taking on more players, beating them with fluent movements and skill.
Pogba, once he sniffed the final third, was either too far from goal to have a go or he would lose possession; frustration settled in.
His position on the pitch does not suit his style of play or ability. He isn’t known for being an enforcer or prolific ball winner. Pogba is best utilized, and demonstrates his unique skill-set, when on the left and able to roll into the attack. He also has the tenacity and technique to score from deep. During his tenure in Italy, his whopping fourteen goals outside the penalty area were second to none.
Jose Mourinho is still working to find the correct formula to suit the players he has. In time, we may very well see Pogba on the left-hand side terrorizing opposing midfield players and defenders. However, United supporters were left disappointed after hoping to see their star man shine on one of the biggest stages English football has to offer.
Paul Pogba has the necessary characteristics to thrive at Manchester United this time around, and it will take time. But, you have to wonder why Mourinho shied away from placing his – and world football’s – most expensive man in the ideal spot to succeed.
This Thursday, United square off with Feyenoord in the Europa League. Perhaps Mourinho is an opportunist and explores a new setup with Paul in his more preferred role.