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Why Paul Pogba is worth the price of a contract extension

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AC Milan v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Tullio Puglia - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Last week it was reported that Manchester United resumed contract talks with the midfielder, as the World Cup winner enters the final year of his current deal with the club in the coming months. Pogba is currently with the French camp after a dazzling display helped Les Bleus to a 1-0 over Germany in their UEFA Euro Group Stage opener. Pogba won’t be able to negotiate in person, but his agent has already begun a busy summer of negotiations on contracts and transfers across Europe.

The fears of losing Pogba via free transfer next summer are real. He’s expressed interest in leaving before, however his apparent suitors may not be in position to land him anymore. Zinedine Zidane has again left Real Madrid after a disappointing 2020/21 season, meaning the appeal of playing under the famed player and manager is gone. A return to Juventus may be more likely, but the club’s complicated expenses in recent years have been a massive burden. With Cristiano Ronaldo off the books next year Pogba could earn wages similar to what he’s making at United, but it’s unlikely a transfer would be agreed this year because of their financial limits. In fact, both Juve and Real Madrid are in a tough spot after poor financial decisions and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as any penalties that may be incurred by their involvement in the Super League.

Still, United’s primary goal should be retaining Pogba’s services. At 28 years old this will likely be Paul Pogba’s last major contract as a footballer. He is still in his prime, despite several years of his services wasted by Jose Mourinho and the subsequent rebuild.

However, the appeal of staying at the club is greater now that United are challenging far into cup competitions and performing much more consistently in the Premier League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has never wavered in his support for Pogba, or backtracked on his commitment to building a team around him. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has taken much of the creative burden off of Pogba, as has the continued emergence of Marcus Rashford and the acquisition of a strong, ball progressing defender in Harry Maguire. Holes are still there, but there is renewed hope of signing Jadon Sancho this summer, and a true no. 6 to pair with Pogba is next on Solskjaer’s shopping list.

From a tactical standpoint, Pogba is crucial for United. Since 2016-17 United win 1.93 points per match when Pogba starts compared to 1.73 when he doesn’t. That might seem like a minor difference but it’s the difference between a 73.53 point pace and a 65.69 point pace. In other words, they’re a Champions League club with him and a Europa League club without him.

Statistically United are a better team when Pogba is on the pitch then when he’s not. That was true even last season with Bruno’s arrival. United weren’t at their best until Pogba and Bruno were on the pitch together, and you should look no further than the first half of that season to remind yourself what life was like without any quality midfielders in the squad. Having two now is a luxury.

This has been true every season Pogba’s been here up until this one.

United scored 34 non-penalty goals this season when Pogba was on the pitch compared to 31 when he wasn’t. However, 13 of those 31 goals (41.94%) came in just two matches (vs Leeds and Southampton) while Pogba missed the equivalent of roughly 17. Five of the 21 goals (23.81%) of the non-penalty goals they conceded when Pogba was on the pitch came in the 6-1 against Tottenham. Strip out those three matches and this looks like a very similar breakdown to Pogba’s first four seasons.

Bruno is United’s creative lynchpin and there’s no questioning that United are built around him, but in order for Bruno to go to work United still need to get him the ball. That’s where Pogba comes in. Everyone is at their best when Bruno is operating up the pitch just outside the box. That’s where you want him to have the ball. You don’t want him dropping deeper to try and get himself on the ball, which is what happens without Pogba.

Just look at where Bruno’s touches come in the games United won this year compared to the others.

Other than the Spurs match United dominated possession in the game they lost. Bruno was getting on the ball just as much as in the games they won but from a worse position. In the games they drew Bruno was getting on the ball fewer times and even more of those touches were coming in the middle and defensive thirds. That sounds like a recipe for a lot of 0-0 draws.

Compare that chart with Bruno’s touch location when Pogba played in the pivot vs when he didn’t.

Of United’s forwards, only Edinson Cavani is a player who can get himself on the end of a cross for a header. The rest of them are direct but not creative players. They’re at their best when you can get them the ball either behind the defenders or in space isolated against their defender. In order to do that you need to have a creator up the pitch with you and you need to have a midfielder who can get the ball directly to that player so he can quickly distribute it among the forwards. Keeping key passers in multiple areas of the pitch also allows for quick transition into attack, something United’s forwards like to do. With Pogba a bit deeper his long range passing gives the opposition much more to think about than the somewhat limited and quite conservative passing of his midfield counterparts.

Fred and Scott McTominay struggle to pass through the lines and typically opt for safer square passes. When you don’t pass through the lines your buildup play becomes slow and laborious, but when they aren’t on both on the pitch United risk exposing their back four. It’s been easy for opposing defenses to get organized and compact against United anyway, and the McFred conundrum of defensive necessity with less penetrative passing has made it difficult to break down the parked buses.

That is what Pogba fixes, and he’s one of the most important players in terms of getting United up the pitch and into attack mode. Pogba is one of two players at United who can make these passes. The other is Bruno Fernandes, but if Bruno drops deep to make those passes then the team are left with three attacking players up the pitch to receive them rather than four, and none of them are particularly creative. United’s system requires at least two direct passers on the pitch. If Pogba leaves, they’ll only have one. Donny van de Beek is a player who’s great at finding spaces to receive passes but he doesn’t make them. They’ll still need someone who can get the ball to him, but there aren’t too many of those guys on the market and they certainly won’t come cheap. However, that role is reportedly high on Ole’s list of needs this summer, further highlighting his early commitments to building a quality team around Pogba. After all, what’s the point of having a Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho if you can’t get them the ball in dangerous places?

If Pogba does decide to look beyond United, the club will be in a midfield crisis. McFred proved admirable defensively but inadequate in attack in Pogba’s recent injury absences, and Nemanja Matic is almost certainly unable to play regularly anymore. Donny Van De Beek’s arrival offered a bit of hope in adding creativity to midfield, but his acclimation to life at United has been slower than hoped for. A new midfielder remains high on the list of transfer needs, but just one might not be enough. Perhaps James Garners gets some first team duties, but excelling in the Championship doesn’t always translate to the Premier League.

The the whole ‘club ambition’ thing has been quite relevant as well to Manchester United in this situation and in the Glazer era in general. A decade ago Wayne Rooney submitted a transfer request because he didn’t like the direction of the club and didn’t think their ambition matched his. You don’t want that kind of situation happening again but it’s not far off. Bruno Fernandes has reportedly said he won’t sign a new contract if Pogba doesn’t extend, and aside from losing a player of Pogba’s caliber (again) you don’t want to have your own players questioning the ambition of the club so soon after the team have become competitive again. Letting Pogba go would certainly have potential recruits second guessing signing with United as well, which is far from ideal during a transfer window in which the club hope to sign Jadon Sancho and at least a couple more immediately impactful players.

The situation isn’t perfect, but Pogba should be smart enough to realize that it isn’t always better on the other side. Real Madrid have struggled mightily to compete since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, still heavily reliant on their quickly aging core of Benzema, Modric, and Kroos. Juventus are in a similar position, overly reliant on an aging Ronaldo and the old guard of Chiellini and Bonucci, and finishing an abysmal 4th place in Serie A after nearly a decade of league dominance.

There are other potential suitors, such as PSG and Bayern, but they’ve got contract decisions of their own coming up, meaning it is unlikely that Pogba will be offered the same wages abroad that he will by United. Ole wants Pogba in the team, as does the rest of the squad, and though Mino Raiola will demand a hefty contract it will almost certainly be worth it for the club to keep everyone happy in continuing the rebuild. It is the best for everyone involved if Pogba extends and sees out the current project. After all it’s been progressing quite nicely, and he’s a big reason why.