The deal seems all-but done: once the many corporate interests involved have ensured that everyone has taken their fair share of the Paul Pogba pie, Manchester United will smash the world-record transfer fee and
marketing’s football’s hottest property will move back to Old Trafford, and, in doing so, he’ll probably become the first second name on new manager José Mourinho’s teamsheet.
Things have certainly changed since the days, not so long ago, when world-class central midfielders like Park Ji-Sung (!) and Rafael Da Silva (!!!) kept Pogba out of United’s engine room, and when Sir Alex Ferguson was so opposed to giving the maverick youngster a chance that he brought a 37 year-old Paul Scholes out of retirement. Effectively shoving Pogba out of the back door and into Juventus’ arms will go down as one of Fergie’s more embarrassing mistakes, and not just because the former manager’s refusal to do business with Mino Raiola ended up costing United £100m+ a few years down the line.
Things are very different now, of course. Although Man Utd’s decline was already well underway by the time Fergie jumped ship, the situation was far from as desperate as it is these days. There was still reason for optimism when Pogba left in July 2012. Indeed, despite an increasingly weak midfield, Robin Van Persie steamrollered United to the title in the following season, and they were still a force to be reckoned with in Europe, matching José Mourinho’s Real Madrid all the way until a red card for Nani ended Fergie’s last European adventure.
Nowadays, as if we need to be reminded, United are a bit of a joke: after the horror of David Moyes’ ten months in the charge and the directionless megaspending of the Louis Van Gaal era, United’s ship is in serious need of some steadying. They were a long way from winning the title last season and they’re even further from being able to compete with the very best on the continent.
There are too many players in the squad who are too old and broken to play as they once did, others who are too young and raw to hit the heights they surely will in the future, and plenty who simply aren’t good enough full stop. If ever there was a time to splurge an unthinkable sum of money on a readymade megastar who you know can deliver the goods, this is it.
So on that simple sporting level, the Pogba deal makes sense – but that’s a somewhat superficial assessment, and the more interesting, important stuff lies below the surface. Besides being an obviously and incredibly exciting talent – and, depressingly but importantly, an almost limitlessly marketable product – what is Paul Pogba? And, perhaps more importantly, what do José Mourinho and Man Utd need him to be? Does he fit in? Where?
It’s a bit difficult to decide exactly what type of midfielder 2016 Paul Pogba is and how Mourinho will use him: one of the reasons he’s apparently worth £100m is that he’s got the potential to be just about any kind of midfielder United want him to be. In Mourinho’s most recent teams he has consistently used an orthodox 4-2-3-1, one which we can reasonably expect him to use as his Plan A next season. Within that structure there are three midfield roles, which the manager himself usually describes as the 6, the 8 and the 10.
The 6 is the guy who sits deepest and is usually but not necessarily the most defensively minded. While Mourinho most recently used Nemanja Matić as his 6 at Chelsea, the 6 can also be a deep-lying playmaker if there are more defensively responsible players ahead of them, or if the manager in question simply wants to go all idealistic on us and play without tacklers (note: Mourinho is unlikely to go all idealistic on us and play without tacklers). The 10… well, no-one needs to be told what a number ten is.
Pogba played his best football at Juventus in a box-to-box role as part of a different kind of midfield three – one with the third midfielder playing behind the midfield pair, instead of ahead of it. Mourinho used to orientate his midfield this way at Chelsea, but seems to have ditched the idea for now. If we’re shoehorning Pogba into one of Mourinho’s current midfield roles, the 8 is the most analogous, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate how he would play his best football for United.
Firstly, until 2015, he had Andrea Pirlo playing behind him and running the game from deep, something that would make life significantly easier for any midfielder with a box-to-box brief. Controlling or dictating play wasn’t something Pogba had to concern himself with – he was more-or-less free to play as he saw fit.
This almost certainly won’t be the case at United. Unless there’s a big surprise in store, Mourinho’s midfield three won’t feature a deep-lying playmaker in the Pirlo mould, doing large amounts of Pogba’s work behind him: it will instead have a large and ungainly potato wearing the number ten shirt stood in front of Pogba, and ruining lots of the good work he does. Quite the reversal in fortunes.
Secondly, the kind of player that Pogba was when he was breaking through and catching the eye in Serie A is not the kind of player he is now, in more than one sense.
Some footballers can be described as ‘YouTube players’ – players whose most spectacular contributions can be collected to make unbelievable highlights packages, but whose impact over ninety minutes or over a season is much less consistent. For a while, especially during his first two seasons in Italy, Pogba was seen by many as something even worse: a ‘Vine player’.
Every weekend, without fail, someone would upload a six-second clip of Pogba doing something absolutely outrageous and get eleventy-trillion retweets, and then those who’d actually sat and watched the Juventus game in full would point out that Pogba’s contribution had been rather more individualistic, uneven and ultimately frustrating than the already-ubiquitous clip would suggest.
His talent was evident, but unpolished. He could obviously do everything, but sometimes he didn’t do anything. The video of the vicious 30-yard rocket which swerved in seven different directions on its way past the bamboozled goalkeeper would go viral, but the occasional ten-minute stretches of play in which Pogba made no impact at all often went unremarked upon.
The consistently ruthless decision-making, the coolness under pressure, the levels of concentration that this generation’s truly great midfielders all have – these attributes weren’t just absent from Pogba’s game, but glaringly so. The terrifying tyro tearing up Serie A was basically, if we’re being cruel about it, a weapons-grade Jermaine Jenas.
The natural inclination for most managers handed an unbelievably talented but naive and occasionally reckless midfielder is to move him higher up the pitch: to get smarter guys to do the work that requires brains in the middle and convert the talented but brainless one into a pure attacker. For reference, see the way Rafa Benítez decided to play Steven Gerrard as a second striker at Liverpool, or Pep Guardiola’s decision to use Cesc Fàbregas as a false nine at Barcelona: rather than let them anywhere near the centre of the park, where their ability might do good but their individualist streaks may equally lead to an undesirable level of anarchy, it was easier and more effective to tell them simply to stand nearer the opposition goal and play as their instincts told them to.
In the seasons since his breakthrough, however, Pogba has made the opposite journey, and has become so much more than the madcap individualist "pure 8" that he was. Instead of developing into the next Wesley Sneijder, he's become more refined, more astute, less likely to put his own needs ahead of the team's. He still has a way to go in terms of his ability to run a game from start to finish in the way that Pirlo, Xavi Hernández or Paul Scholes could, and that Luka Modrić can, for example, but Pogba has definitely developed the intelligence and the ability to control long passages of play from deep.
Pirlo’s move to MLS allowed Pogba to become Juventus’ tempo setter – or rather one of them, given the role of their third centre-back, Leonardo Bonucci – and he made the most out of that switch in role, so much so that at Euro 2016 Pogba played as France’s playmaker – their 6. While criticised by some observers, he performed more than ably. In this new look United side, Mourinho can trust Pogba to be United’s 6, provided the 8 and the 10 have the right characteristics to strike a balance with Pogba’s. If Pogba is to be United’s 6, the more attacking Ander Herrera has the right attributes to be their 8.
That said, the 6 role would limit Pogba somewhat: when you’ve got someone who can do basically anything, why would you tie him down to one job, and ask him to balance the other guys? Sure, he can do that, but it’s probably not the best way to use him – and besides that, a Pogba/Herrera double-pivot definitely isn’t the best partnership to build the team around as a whole.
It makes much more sense to give someone with Pogba’s otherworldly talent a more roaming brief, albeit one which includes helping to control the game from deep: a blend of the 6 role he is fast growing into and the 8 role that he started out playing; a mix that gives Pogba – and United – the best of both worlds. Thankfully, there is a precedent for this and it’s a recent and useful one: the way Mourinho used Cesc Fàbregas to devastating, title-winning effect at Chelsea in 2014-15.
In some ways the two are very different players: Pogba is a natural athlete and Fàbregas is… not; Fàbregas has a more nuanced and intuitive football intelligence – when his team has the ball, at least – which allowed him to play as a forward at Barça and for Spain, before his legs went; Fàbregas is at his best when his team has total control of the game, whereas Pogba can come into his own when things get more chaotic.
In other, more important ways, though, Fàbregas and Pogba are very similar: both possess wondrous technical ability and a keen eye for a killer pass; both have been criticised for being overly individual and unreliable as team players; neither quite fits as a pure 6 or a pure 8, but in theory – and in practice, at least in Cesc’s case – works best as a blend of both. Especially in the wild and frenetic world of the Premier League, it makes much more sense to try and replicate the Fàbregas role with Pogba than it does to ask him to do his best Luka Modrić impression.
Furthermore, in Morgan Schneiderlin, United have an obvious Nemanja Matić figure with whom to partner their brand new Fàbregas, and Schneiderlin/Pogba is a lot more convincing and reassuring and complete than Pogba/Herrera. In fact, as far as midfield partnerships go, it looks pretty close to perfect in abstract. There is, however, one small problem: ultimately, no matter what shape Mourinho adopts or what role he uses Pogba in, at some point Pogba is going to have to pass the ball to Wayne Rooney, and each time that happens Rooney will probably immediately f**k everything up.
In a perfect world, the fact that Rooney is who he is wouldn’t matter; the fact that United pay Rooney upwards of £15m p/a wouldn’t matter; the fact that half of the British press are paid-up members of the Wayne Rooney Fan Club wouldn’t matter. Sadly, the world is not perfect, and all of those things do matter.
Despite Pogba’s massive transfer fee, despite the fact that United will have willingly paid Mino Raiola €20m just to get the evil bastard to sign his name on the relevant pieces of paper, despite the fact that Rooney is so painfully obviously past it that if he were a horse he would have been taken out back and shot by now, Pogba is only ever going to play second fiddle this season. Even under José Mourinho, Rooney’s is going to be the first name on the teamsheet, and it will be until his performances hit such embarrassing lows that Rooney makes the demotion himself.
When answering the question ‘Where does Paul Pogba fit in at Man Utd?’, therefore, we must first consider the question ‘where does Wayne Rooney fit in at Man Utd?’ and with Zlatan Ibrahimović, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford presumably set to share the duties as the team’s lone striker, Rooney will play the entire season as United’s first-choice second striker/third midfielder. If Juan Mata can’t be moved on, he and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – plus, perhaps, Martial – will have to make do playing as nominal wingers, despite both being better 10s than Rooney, and better fits with someone of Pogba’s ilk and intelligence than Rooney ever will be.
There is quite an obvious vacancy in United’s squad for a midfielder of Pogba’s type, and a fairly obvious role to give him within that framework. Given his ludicrous talent and Mourinho’s considerable skill when it comes to team composition, we should be expecting this all to work out extremely well. Until the Rooney conundrum is solved, however, Pogba and Mourinho, as well as all United fans and the rest of the watching world, will probably find that their talent and effort can only take them so far.