It’s hard to find a United fan at the moment who isn’t enthused by the signing of Paul Pogba, in fact most see this as a game changer. It is certainly a coup given that the selling club did not really want to sell and we had Real Madrid lurking as a rival suitor. Many are celebrating the fact that we have been able to sign a young top class talent whose career is still in the ascendency and at a time when we cannot offer Champions League football.
But what will the signing mean on the pitch?
Perhaps more than anything the signing gives Jose Mourinho tactical options. This stems from the fact that Pogba is a box-to-box midfield player who has said himself that he wants to be good at everything. Whilst he isn’t good at everything at the moment this is an admirable aim. United haven’t really had a player accomplished in this role at the level that Pogba is at for over ten years since Roy Keane left the club but the key thing in our view is that he is a left-sided midfield player, something that not many people seem to be focusing on.
Speaking about Pogba Jose Mourinho has said,
“He’s a very young player, an unbelievable midfield player with such physicality but, at the same time, such agility, co-ordination, skill. He has everything. What he has to learn now is how to play with us because I always say that in football you can be a super player, like he is, but a team is a team and you need to learn how to play in the team, and the team needs to learn how to play with you”.
Jose will have spotted that he is left-sided and will have no doubt factored this into his thinking. It is likely to be one of the factors which brought the manager to the decision to exclude Bastian Schweinsteiger from his plans, (although only one of them with his lack of pace and injury record also featuring highly). When considering how Jose will integrate Pogba into his side the focus has often been on the Rooney role with an almost default assumption that the manager will go with a 4-2-3-1; this has certainly been his preferred team formation to date but this is not guaranteed. Jose likes options both in terms of determining the pre-match game plan and as contingency to allow adjustments during games. Paul Pogba gives him a greater range of options because as a box-to-box player he has a broader range of attribute than more specialist players and as a left sided player he allows lateral balance across the midfield.
The assumption made by many is that Jose Mourinho will use this as his first choice formation and this might well be the case. This then anticipates Pogba as the left-sided holding midfield player with Carrick (or Schneiderlin or even Herrera) on his right. That would allow Rooney to feature in the number 10 role and Ibrahimovich ahead of him as a central striker. This wouldn’t require any significant adjustments from the formation employed in the Community Shield, Pogba would simply replace Fellaini.
4-2-3-1 with Pogba alongside Carrick
Pogba has played in this role, most recently at Euro 2016 for France when he partnered Matuidi. It didn’t go that well and it doesn’t seem to get the most out of Pogba’s talents. It also highlights or at least potentially exposes Pogba weakness; his positional discipline. This is something that Jose will no doubt work on anyway so is something that should not necessarily see us discount this option but while he may become more disciplined in response to Jose’s tutilage this may in turn restrict his greatest strengths, his energy and physicality, his ability to win the ball in high areas drive the team on and shoot himself.
A Three Man Midfield
At Juventus as Pogba emerged as a star he was most usually employed in a three man midfield. The Juventus shape was generally something close to a 3-3-2-2. That meant wingbacks flanking a single holding midfield player, usually Pirlo, with two players further forward in midfield. Pogba was one of those two featuring on the left.
United could set up in this way but it seems unlikely; more likely is a midfield triangle within a 4-3-3. It terms of personnel Carrick would be the most likely holding midfield player although in time he could be replaced by a hopefully more adventurous Schneiderlin or even Tim Mosu-Mensah. Pogba would feature on the left with a freer role to chase down the ball and then drive forward with another midfield player doing something similar on the right of midfield, at the moment that would most likely be Herrera but it could be Schneiderlin, Fosu-Mensah or even Mata.
4-3-3 with Pogba ahead of Carrick and alongside Herrera
This shape would seem to be the one that would give the best platform to Pogba’s undoubted talents and the team shape is not a million miles away from the formation employed by Van Gaal in the spring of 2015 when United went on a winning run which saw them defeat Tottenham, Liverpool and City in quick succession. The question as pointed out by others is where would Rooney fit into this shape? This shape might suite Pogba but Jose now has the attacking talents of Martial, Rashford, Ibrahimovich, Mata and Mkhitaryan to deploy as well as Rooney.
A Midfield Diamond
That conundrum makes the tactical challenge more complex. A 4-4-2 incorporating a midfield diamond however seems to solve that problem. This would see a single holding midfield players and two wider midfield players further forward, of which Pogba would be one.
4-4-2 diamond, with space for Rooney
The difference from the midfield shape employed in a 4-3-3 is the incorporation of a number 10, which could be Rooney, or Mata or Mkhitaryan, whilst still allowing for two forwards; perm two from three of Martial, Ibrahimovich or Rashford. This formation would require fullbacks to push forward to provide attacking width. Luke Shaw can be relied upon to do this, but based on pre-season so could Valencia who provided another assist in the Community Shield and appears to be thriving under our new manager.
Plan A, Plan B or Plan C
In time a more commonly used tactical option will emerge. It might be going too far to call this a preferred option as Jose in known for his tactical flexibility. He is a pragmatic man who will relish the options that a more balanced squad will give him. Jose has used all the formations described above in the pasted and had success with each. In his first press conference he identified four “player profiles” he wished to fill to rebalance his squad. He has intelligently done and miraculously for United the club working to his requirements have done that in a single transfer window.
Paul Pogba fills the final player profile identified but he feels like the key element in the equation because more than any other signing he gives Mourinho room to manoeuvre and adapt his strategies, he gives him flexibility, he gives him options.