Manchester United’s dismal run of form continued against Leicester on Saturday as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team suffered a dejecting 4-2 defeat. It was the chance to usher in a triumphant return to form for United, however Solskjaer’s team looked even worse than before the international break for large patches of the game.
Naturally questions will be directed towards the manager and his subsequent selection of Harry Maguire, who had an awful individual performance, but it was United’s midfield that once again massively struggled, particularly Paul Pogba. Just days ago, Pogba had put in a top-class performance for France, winning the UEFA Nations League in the process, yet the Pogba on the pitch against Leicester looked a million miles from the Nations League display.
This then poses the question, what is the reason Pogba can be brilliant for France yet not translate this to club football? In all truth there is likely to be several factors rather than one sole reason, but Pogba’s unstable form for United has been present since the Frenchman arrived, which leads to the natural assumption that somethings not quite right within the United setup if it can’t get the best out of the exceptionally talented midfielder.
Pogba had left United in an unsavoury manner all the way back in 2012, departing Sir Alex Fergusons side for Juventus, and Sir Alex made it very clear he wasn’t happy with how the situation played out. United’s legendary manager has always had a dislike towards Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, who managed to get the Frenchman out of United on a free back then.
Since then, Pogba returned in grand fashion in 2016, a world record fee of £89 million at the time, this in tandem with an intensive social media announcement raised expectations through the roof. However, despite all the hype and expectation, Pogba has never seemed to fully realise the potential he possesses.
It started out well enough for Pogba, winning the Europa League and League Cup in his first season for United, the midfielder had a decent season under Jose Mourinho, who he would later famously fall out with. Even then though, Pogba didn’t always look comfortable in the holding number six role, his attacking brilliance caged, and emphasis put on his defensive contributions- which is nowhere near the strongest aspect of his game.
It felt like Pogba was touted as some sort of midfield saviour for United, an area that has failed to have been properly addressed for years. While there has been midfielders brought in alongside Pogba, such as Ander Herrera or Nemanja Matic, there has rarely been a United side in the last few years where you felt like that the midfield would take charge and be the difference in the game.
This then must partly go down to poor recruitment and the turnover in managers in the last eight years, United are in uncharted territory and it shows. Four different managers with hugely contrasting ideas and systems, some more evident than others. For example, Mourinho’s defensively minded United side were very good at grinding out results whereas Solskjaer allows more of a free reign approach in search for goals.
The point being United have been signing players for different systems and ideas and then forcing the next manager to try and integrate them in their own setup- it’s inefficient and unsustainable regarding success.
Consequentially now where United find themselves with one win in five it’s only fitting that the board have reportedly promised to stick by Solskjaer, a clear sign that the manager turnover is not something they want to become a habit. Going back to Pogba, it is Solskjaer who let his attacking instincts run free in a left-wing role.
Pogba seemed happier playing from the left and having fewer defensive responsibilities, and for a while it seemed like the balance of the team was better like this. However, the void of sheer quality lost in central areas is noticeable when the Frenchman plays on the left, there are far less forward or line breaking passes, and despite being more defensively sound, the manager would ideally want both aspects present in central midfield.
Subsequently we can look to France to see how it can work out for Pogba to perform to his best while still playing in that central area. In the France setup Pogba is paired with a sitter, a midfielder who is defensively minded and usually high energy and intensity, almost the antithesis of Pogba who is freer spirited and plays with a steady rhythm.
A player like N’Golo Kante or more recently Aurelien Tchouameni next to Pogba means he can focus on his strongest attributes such as dribbling, passing, and arriving in attacking areas rather than defending. This is ideally what United may need to look to do, but presently the only player who would be able to play a role next to Pogba like this is Matic, however the Serbian lacks the legs and engine needed to do this to provide true defensive cover.
Therein lies the issue with the Pogba puzzle, currently Pogba is a piece that just doesn’t fit into the crop of United players that Solskjaer has without drawback. Play him on the left-wing and opportunities for the multitude of talented wingers United possess are scuppered, play him in midfield and United are vulnerable defensively.
It does seem though after five long years and several top performances at the national level United and Solskjaer may have finally worked out the solution to solve the problem, i.e. bringing in a proper number six/defensive midfielder suited to Pogba’s game, but it almost seems too late.
Pogba would have to commit to another long haul at United to ever see the benefits of such a player brought in alongside him, something he may not want to do. This is because of on top of never feeling truly comfortable in any specific role, Pogba has always flirted with a United exit, fuelling the tirade of comments suggesting the Frenchman doesn’t care and isn’t good enough for United anyway.
All of this alongside the club being poorly managed from the top down for a good while has meant Pogba has always looked like a fish out of water. A player unstable in performances generated from an unstable environment and lack of clarity on his role. Pogba has been a square piece in a round hole for United’s midfield for a while, a midfield that is symptomatic of far greater issues at the club regarding ownership and lack of proper structuring.
On his day Pogba will provide the most outrageous assist and bury a 30 yarder like it’s nothing, but it’s rarely been Pogba’s day at his time during United. In spite of this, Pogba has been a top scorer and top assist provider during his time at the club, further muddying the unclear waters of whether Pogba can be considered a success or even a good player over the last five years.
When playing for France Pogba is surrounded by winners, a clear system and stability- at United it’s now unfortunately the opposite. This doesn’t excuse the times we’ve seen a lack of effort from the Frenchman, the jogging back or head down attitude that sometimes surfaces in hard times, but it adds to the reasons of why Pogba hasn’t fulfilled a massive potential in his time here.
In terms of the future, it’s currently unclear for Pogba as it feels almost every year for the 28-year-old. Raiola has frequently opened his mouth regarding potential moves away and Pogba has done nothing to suggest long-term commitment to United.
The next contract for Pogba will be his last big contract, so there is an added pressure on a player that has professed he is desperate to win, perhaps a reason why a move away from United may be so appealing. Yet despite this there is clearly an affection for the club from Pogba, or in failing that a desire to win here and prove doubters wrong, this may be one reason the Frenchman considers staying.
The easy way out would be to leave for Real Madrid or Juventus, but the fairy-tale ending would be to stay and potentially help United ascend back to glory. If this is ever to happen United need to make the correct decisions from the board level down in terms of recruitment, the right course of action regarding the manager situation, and most importantly, Pogba has to really want to play for the club.
United now find themselves needing to bounce back if the season is to be considered a success, and Pogba may find himself playing a greater role in not just his own future but the future of the club.
Written by Sam Wilson