The importance of being Paul Labile Pogba

Manchester United players and supporters are on a different level right now. A league cup may not be the best trophy to have but it certainly is the one which Jose Mourinho would be happy to start off with. Manchester United players or supporters weren’t in any mood for a song and dance at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Wednesday. The Old Trafford club eased to a 1-0 win against their French opponents, Saint-Etienne – a victory attained at some cost, with Eric Bailly seeing red, and both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick collecting injuries.

The injuries were  particularly ill-timed given that United faces Southampton in the final of the EFL Cup on Sunday.  They are big blows, no doubt, but perhaps not as catastrophic as they first seem. Manchester United managed to pluck this trophy in thin air and all credit to smart substitutions done by Jose Mourinho and Zlataner effect.

Paul Pogba may not have hit the heights as expected by fans and critics but it would be absolutely stupid to say he has not been performing for his new club. At the beginning of the season this side struggled to reconcile its identity, with performances and results reflecting that uncertainty. Those elements of doubt appear to have vanished with time as the United squad has a clearer idea of how it is meant to play. More importantly, the team is more able to execute game plans.

Naturally, it helps possessing a player as gifted and astute as Paul Pogba on the books. While the Frenchman is capable of this

he has also demonstrated an ability to adapt to José’s tactical demands.  That detail may seem a minor point, but nonetheless it should not be overlooked.  One only has to recall earlier in the season the cries to play a 4-3-3 in order to accommodate Pogba’s talent. In recent games, alongside Ander Hererra, the Frenchman has looked more than comfortable playing in a 4-2-3-1.

Why is this important?

So why is this important?  For a start, his ability to operate in a deeper position lessens the impact of losing Michael Carrick.  It’s no coincidence that Mourinho’s side plays better when the Geordie is in the side, but it simply isn’t feasible to continue to rely on the 35-year-old to boss midfield.

Former United fullback Paul Parker recently criticized Pogba’s performances this season.  Parker has a flair for hyperbole, claiming that Pogba couldn’t “justify his fee unless he scores 15 goals a season and has 25 assists.” That observation should be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s designed to make a headline, but his comment about style of play is worth looking at.

Parker had said

“The problem is that he’s not playing with the same calibre of players that he had at Juventus so he’s trying to do too much and holds onto the ball too long, He never had so many touches of the ball at Juventus because maybe now he feels he doesn’t have the players around him who he respects. Maybe if he kept it more simple and began respecting the people around he’d do more instead of just flashes.”

Pogba has made 1,787 passes in the Premier League this season, second only to Jordan Henderson, and played 23 through balls.  Those don’t look like the numbers of a player who doesn’t ‘respect’ his teammates. The remark about simplicity does bear a little scrutiny though, certainly if one is to go over Pogba’ s early matches.  To the naked eye the Frenchman appeared to be trying too hard, perhaps in an effort to justify his transfer fee.  It certainly didn’t help that he and his manager was still searching for the correct role.

Now though things seem more settled and Pogba is demonstrating, if any proof was required, that teams don’t necessarily need to be built around the Frenchman for him to thrive.  It is common knowledge that he can be devastating on the left hand side of midfield in a 4-3-3, but he’s showing that playing effectively in a 4-2-3-1 isn’t beyond his repertoire.

Tactical Adaptability

His performance against Watford prompted Mourinho to argue that Pogba

“is playing with great balance in these last two games: he is playing with his brain, he is recovering a lot of balls, he is very good in his positional play.”

Pogba is an outrageous talent, but not enough is made of his tactical nous. Mourinho mentioned Pogba’s positional play is sound and knows when to go forward and when to he needs to cover.  Moreover, with Pogba adapting to his deeper role it allows for Mourinho to play Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the pitch together, a seemingly unthinkable proposition a few months ago.

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Pogba’s discipline in a 4-2-3-1 allows for United to exploit the attacking options at Mourinho’s disposal and gives the United boss the tactical flexibility to alter his team’s style of play.  Naysayers will argue that this iteration of Pogba won’t be able to score 15 goals or lay on 25 assists; that he doesn’t justify the transfer fee. Maybe they’re missing the point.  Goals and assists don’t necessarily reflect Pogba’s ability to break presses with his range of passing, not to mention his dribbling.  Nor do they shine a light on his ability to recognise transitions of play and act accordingly.

But isn’t £89 million a lot to pay for effectively a holding midfielder?  Perhaps but maybe Mourinho’s plan isn’t to embark on a clumsy galactico style endeavour where all the stars are forced fit into the side.  That money has bought one of the finest midfielders of his generation, who is savvy enough to adapt his game and still perform to a top class level. So much so that by playing deeper he allows forwards more freedom to express themselves because they know the Frenchman can deliver – whether covering the defence or initiating attacks with intelligent passes.

Mourinho is a believer. The Portuguese coach said

“I am really happy with what he has been doing for us, He gives us an incredible balance and he is still very young. He starts build-ups from the back, he recovers the ball and at the top of the pitch he is a guy that can score goals. He can be fantastic and I think in a couple of years you will realize he was cheap.”

He is a man who once said “25 million is cheap for a striker and judge him when he leaves this club”. This man was Didier Drogba and was he worth 25million? We all know the answer to that.

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An £89 million bargain? In the world of football that may not be as preposterous as it sounds

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Number 16: WHAT’S IN A NUMBER?

The United number 7 is a shirt that carries plenty of history, albeit in recent times a jersey that was held by gifted yet ultimately lightweight talents. While the club is looking for a worthy successor to don the fabled number 7, José Mourinho is fully aware that a new number 16 could be required sooner rather than later.

We have been told time and time again that the key to international (and European) football is possession. There is no better English player to Michael Carrick playing the possession game which makes it hard for me to see why he has been overlooked time and time again. With England failing time and time again at an international stage, could Michael Carrick have held the key to success? He has never really been able to nail down a place in the England team, often being overlooked and shunted aside to make way for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry; a decision which continues to baffle everyone even today.

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Only two players have worn the number 16 of Manchester United: enigmatic Roy Keane and the metronomic Michael Carrick. He is entering the twilight of his career there’s now a question eerily similar to that posed when Keane departed Old Trafford. “Who will be the new Michael Carrick?”

The query seems straightforward enough, but what it implies is that Mourinho should search for a direct replacement and there are very few high quality options to fill Carrick’s boots. The most obvious choice is Paris Saint Germain’s Marco Verratti, while Borussia Dortmund’s highly rated Julian Weigl has also been mentioned in the conversation. It is perhaps just as pertinent to consider whether United should look for a Carrick clone at all.

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This much was as true when Keane left Old Trafford in 2005. Carrick is many things, but a copy of the Cork man he is not. That did not stop Carrick from successfully defining himself as an extremely effective midfielder to the point where the Geordie is practically indispensable. Simply put, whenever Carrick has played this season United, more often than not, has won.

In the question of succession, Mourinho must consider whether he wants United to operate with a deep-lying playmaker, in the Carrick mould, or whether he prefers to alter the way the midfield functions. Mourinho should know – he has worked with some of the best over his career, coaching Claude Makélélé, Xabi Alonso, Esteban Cambiasso and Luka Modrić. The Portuguese is more than capable of assembling different types of midfield to suit his need. It seems Mourinho’s vision for his team appears to be one filled with powerful, quick, athletic technicians.

Last summer’s transfer dealings certainly indicate that Mourinho is heading in that direction, given what Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly and, to a lesser degree, Henrikh Mkhitaryan offer on the pitch. There has been a noticeable effort to make the starting team more powerful, taller and stronger, which may explain Mourinho’s decision to start Marouane Fellaini at the beginning of his Old Trafford tenure. Though the Portuguese manager admitted that it’s a “pity” Michael Carrick isn’t 10 years younger, he is fully committed to retooling the team. In all likelihood that means the ‘Carrick role’ could soon become a thing of the past. Not least because, as noted, there are very few identikit Carrick replacements. Once the Geordie hangs up his boots the position will become open to new interpretation.

It may be that Carrick’s successor will have a more limited scope, simply being instructed to screen the defence and offload possession to more attack-minded players. Alternatively, Mourinho may look to build a more fluid midfield, where the middle three are comfortable switching roles, enabling a new number 16 to attack, while still expecting them to be defensively responsible.

The crux is that just like there was never a new Keane, despite Liam Miller’s best efforts, there probably won’t be a new Carrick either. Indeed, the incumbent has a unique mix of defensive nous and attacking intelligence that makes him a vital cog in United’s team even at the age of 35, and even after Mourinho had mentally discarded the player last summer.

Moreover, it is noticeable that those who have tried to fill Carrick’s shoes have not quite been capable of pulling it off. Any notion that a direct replacement is needed overlooks the fact that very few players can do what the Geordie can.

United discovered the hard way that a like-for-life search is nigh on impossible in the wake of Keane’s departure. While Carrick is a very different type of player to the Irishman, it makes sense that whoever inherits the number 16 will have to make the position their own. No cheap imitations here.

The transition will not be easy either. Indeed, Carrick suffered plenty of lows at United before truly commanding the position. His presence in midfield is no doubt calming right now, but in the grand scheme of things Carrick is a player that is just aiding the transition from a post-Ferguson United to a Mourinho outfit. Ultimately, the Portuguese manager has very different demands of his squad.

For the successor there will be comparisons to Carrick once a new recruit is found. It’s the easiest route to an analytical critique. That form of evaluation will blind pundits and supporters alike to whatever new tactical requirements Mourinho will inevitably ask of his new player.

The question to be asked is now, is how the role will be redefined after the Geordie’s eventual departure, and not simply “who will be the new Michael Carrick?”