Brendan Crossan: The problem isn't Paul Pogba - it's the tactics
THE most regrettable thing about Euro 2016 was France’s failure to win the tournament.
They had the tools to win it, but they had a manager who didn’t know how best to use them. Didier Deschamps knows this to be true. Eventual winners Portugal were like thieves in the night in Paris back in July. France were a tactical abomination in the final. So much was wrong with the hosts, it was hard to know where to start.
One player Deschamps didn’t know how to utilise was Paul Pogba. Manchester United’s new world record signing didn’t fit the Deschamps template. He was the manager’s problem player. He was dropped after France’s first game against Romania before winning his place back in the team again.
In the final, Deschamps ended up finding a place for Pogba, shoe-horning him in at the base of the French midfield alongside Blaise Matuidi. Rarely did Pogba get forward in the game. The Portugal defence must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when they didn’t have to try and contain Pogba’s attacking thrusts from midfield. Instead, the one French midfielder who had licence to break forward on the night was Moussa Sissoko. But it should have been Pogba. That one tactical tweak could have allowed France to land the trophy.
Pogba is an old-fashioned box-to-box midfielder. Players of his ilk were once the most highly sought-after. But the game has changed. It’s a lot less free. In the modern game, players play in specific zones. The issue with Pogba is he wants to be play in different zones of the pitch. Pogba provides his own managers with a tactical headache.
Currently, there isn’t a demand for box-to-box midfielders. So how do you strait-jacket a player like Pogba? More importantly, why would you want to strait-jacket a player like Pogba? It’s perhaps a damning indictment on the prevailing tactics of the day that the world’s most expensive player doesn’t easily fit in.
Creative players were once the essential hub of teams, often central-midfield players. Nowadays, playing a creative player in central-midfield is deemed by many coaches as foolhardy. And so, with time, the creative midfield player has been pushed further forward - usually behind the striker - sometimes pushed into a wide position and, in a lot of instances, forced out of the team altogether and onto the bench, only to be used in retrieving a game.
Pogba’s performance in the Manchester derby last weekend was heavily criticised. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher highlighted several instances where Pogba’s poor positional sense proved costly to Manchester United, given the Frenchman was deployed as a holding-midfielder in the game alongside Mourane Fellaini - until it was changed after half-time.
Before last weekend’s derby even started, Pogba was on a hiding to nothing. He could have stuck to his specific zone beside Fellaini, which would have disabled the most dynamic part of his game: attacking. Or he could have tried to push forward - which he did - and leave Fellaini to fend for himself as the solitary defensive-midfielder.
To compound matters, Fellaini doesn’t have the mobility to pull off the defensive-midfield role. In fact, it’s a mystery how the Belgian international has survived Jose Mourinho’s first cull at Old Trafford. Either way, Pogba was on a loser last Saturday afternoon.
To spend £89m on a player of Pogba’s ability and plant him in a defensive-midfield role is a complete waste of his talent and merely repeats Deschamps’ mistake of the summer. Carragher was right to highlight how Pogba’s positioning left a gaping hole for Man City to exploit.
Most teams in the modern era play with two holding-midfielders and, yet, Barcelona do just fine with one in Sergio Busquets. United’s problem last weekend wasn’t Pogba. It was Mourinho’s poor tactics. But it didn’t stop some pundits rushing to judgement on the languid Frenchman.
Eamonn Dunphy commented: “Alex Ferguson was right to let him go. I think he saw what I’ve always seen, which is that this guy doesn’t have a game.
“He does nothing well enough and doesn’t have a football brain. He takes up the wrong positions all the time. I don’t see anything in him and I think he will be a spectacular failure.”
Even the merest bit of research would tell Pogba’s critics United have, indeed, signed one of the best players in the world. The 23-year-old thrived at Juventus because he played in a system that suited him and got the best out of him.
He has quick feet, he can shoot from distance, he can dribble and is hard to knock off the ball, he’s a goal threat and he can win back possession. Arguably his greatest attribute is the ability to make incisive runs from deep.
For much of his four years in Turin, he was virtually unplayable in a forward-thinking midfield role. The Juventus coach at the time, Antonio Conte, weighed up Pogba’s abilities and decided they were worth building a team around.
Pogba always played in a central-midfield three. It was usually three from four - Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Pogba. Conte’s preferred system was a wingless 3-5-2, with the full-backs providing the width. It proved good enough to dominate Serie A and reestablished the Old Lady as a European force again. Pogba and Pirlo were the Juventus kingpins.
It’s hard to understand the criticism raining down on Pogba right now, especially when much of it lacks context. It’s a genuine pity the box-to-box midfielder is on the verge of extinction and he’s just cost Manchester United a world record fee £89m.
Maybe we need to talk about the prevailing tactics of the day and preoccupation with zones than fretting over trying to shoe-horn Pogba into them. Maybe we’re looking at Paul Pogba from the wrong angle.