Wednesday 13 December 2017

Here is what Jose Mourinho must do to get the best out of Paul Pogba

Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action Liverpool's James Milner
Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action Liverpool's James Milner

Alistair Tweedale

Two-and-a-half months on from his world record transfer back to Manchester United, it would be harsh to start calling Paul Pogba anything like a flop or failure, but it isn't inaccurate to say we did expect more from the £89 million man.

After a summer in which he showed all too infrequent glimpses of his brilliance at Euro 2016, the hope was that Jose Mourinho would allow the Frenchman the necessary freedom to flourish at Old Trafford.

But that hasn't been the case. After a strong start Mourinho's United have stuttered somewhat: the 4-1 win over Leicester City has been the only convincing performance - in an attacking sense - since August.

Pogba has spent much of the season playing in defensive midfield in Mourinho's 4-2-3-1, from where he has been asked to conduct the tempo of the game from deep. For France in the summer we saw that this wasn't his most effective position, and it is little surprise to see that he has slowly been moved forward since.

At Anfield on Monday night he was United's number 10, but he was asked to do a vastly different job to that which he was used to at Juventus.

Andrea Pirlo played alongside Paul Pogba at Juventus for three years CREDIT: REUTERS
Pogba and Pirlo at Juve

Playing in a team built by Antonio Conte that dominated Serie A for years, Pogba, Andrea Pirlo and co. controlled possession week-after-week and were able to wear teams down, in a way it has quickly become clear Mourinho's United will not.

Against Liverpool they had just 35.4 per cent of the ball; Pogba had just 64 touches; he completed just 71.1 per cent of his passes and scarcely threatened the opposition goal. He produced one sumptuous cross for a Zlatan Ibrahimovic header but did little else of note.

The question remains as to how to get the best of Pogba, which is surely something that Mourinho has to prioritise.

First of all, he needs to see more of the ball. Pogba did his job well in helping keep United's shape as they stifled Jurgen Klopp's side to earn a goalless draw, but is this enough given how outlandishly they spent in the summer? Should we not be seeing them at least attempt to outplay their opponents?

Pogba's dribbling ability is up there with the best on the planet, and although he has been beating an opponent 2.6 times per Premier League appearance, we haven't seen enough end product from him, which probably owes to the deeper positions he has found himself.

At Juventus, Pogba produced some astonishing goals from distance, often preceded by a jink or a trick to go past a defender, but at United he has only had three shots on target from outside the box in seven games, and his only goal was a header from a corner. He has also yet to register a single assist.

Ander Herrera of Manchester United wins a header with Roberto Firmino of Liverpool Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Ander Herrera in action against Firmino

The emergence of Ander Herrera as an energetic and effective ball-winner gives Pogba more freedom, but he would benefit further from another central midfield partner who moves the ball quicker than Marouane Fellaini.

The Belgian is often an easy target, but the pace of the Premier League is something Pogba is still getting used to, and when service to him is a split-second late that can make a crucial difference.

Much of the criticism of Louis van Gaal's reign was that the football was too slow and ponderous, and worryingly that has remained all too prevalent since Mourinho's arrival. Wayne Rooney losing his place in the team was a consequence of that, and Fellaini may be next.

At the fee he cost, Pogba must have been signed for his game-changing abilities. We are yet to see those in full, but given the right surroundings, there is certainly more to come.

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