The confirmation of Manchester United’s signing of Paul Pogba, for a fee in the region of £89 million, is incredible for both United and the Premier League, as England tries to re-establish its relentless influence on European football at the highest level. The implications of this transfer are endless – not only does it make United favourites to win the Europa League, it also makes England favourites to now be able to hold on to their stars and pick up stars in the transfer market. Since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, Florentino Perez has been able to throw money at the world’s biggest stars, if not Barcelona – but that cycle ends now.
Perhaps most importantly, Pogba is an astute tactical signing. He offers exactly what United needs; guile, physical and aerial presence, assists, goals, dribbling and passing from the midfield – and he is the best midfielder in the world when considering the above attributes. The only remaining problem around the Pogba saga is deploying him in a system that magnifies these strengths. United will most likely end up in one of the following three systems.
Tactical Ideal: 4-3-3 Without Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney has not found his form for almost half a decade now, but he still remains in the starting lineup for some reason. Using a 4-3-3 system under Louis van Gaal brought the best out of the likes of Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, though only two of the four will likely end up as the first choice in this side. With Morgan Schneiderlin or Michael Carrick behind Herrera and Pogba, United has two different options in defensive midfield – one to control the game and one to offer attacking and defensive threat on his own. The best is yet to come from Morgan Schneiderlin.
The 4-3-3 will allow Pogba and Herrera to become the dictatorial base of United’s midfield, and they complement each other spectacularly. Pogba will undoubtedly function best in this midfield, with the ability to attack and defend in equal measure without limits. United also has the option of returning to Carrick and Fellaini alongside Herrera in midfield when Pogba is unavailable. Finally, the system would reduce defensive reliance on Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the wings.
On the other hand, Wayne Rooney will end up on the bench, which always leads to his dissatisfaction with United’s proceedings. Jose Mourinho was either forced to or chose to keep Rooney at United, which will undoubtedly prove to be a mistake moving forward. It is also arguable that Schneiderlin functions more effectively in a double-pivot midfield, though surely his role can be shaped properly to emulate his successes at Southampton.
Realistic Option: 4-2-3-1
Mourinho’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system has been designed well because it allows Martial and Mkhitaryan to play a key role in the match – only less key than Rooney. When Rooney plays well, the whole side plays well, but more often than not Rooney is off the pace and prone to losing possession in transition. If Pogba moved centrally in the 4-2-3-1 system, it could work spectacularly – but there are questions as to whether United would play Herrera or Fellaini in a defensive midfield role because otherwise, they would need to deploy two defensive midfielders in all matches.
United doesn’t seem to have the staff required to play 4-2-3-1 as well as 4-3-3, but it is continuously prioritized because Rooney apparently needs to be on the pitch at all times. If United continues to direct proceedings this way, Pogba will struggle to have an attacking influence on the match in a defensive midfield role. Mourinho claimed Rooney’s best attribute was the ability to find the back of the net, but Pogba directly contributed to more goals than Rooney last season in a deeper position.
Plan B: 4-4-2
Leicester City’s midfield two is the perfect exemplification of how all midfield football should be played. In N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, Leicester had two midfielders who would work incredibly hard. Kante would carry the defensive responsibility and bomb forward with the ball, and Drinkwater would look for long passes and dribbles into the opposition box. It is easy to imagine Pogba and Schneiderlin setting up in this system, which would allow Rooney and Ibrahimovic to play up top together.
However, Martial and Mkhitaryan would be hindered by the defensive responsibilities that come with playing in a 4-4-2 system. While it would bring the best out of Jesse Lingard, United would struggle to incorporate their most creative players into promising positions. Playing in a 4-4-2 diamond could be another option, but Rooney and Ibrahimovic would be static as a front two in the diamond system.