Paul Pogba has been deployed in a number of roles this season for Manchester United. With the most expensive player in world football still adapting to life back in the Premier League though, Pogba has played in each regular setup 23 times in the league with another 7 matches involving structures which weren’t regularly used, or specifically designed for certain matches in order to counter the opposition.
A possession-based system, the first tactical set-up saw Mourinho deploy a 3-man midfield template of a regista (Carrick, the stability), a ball winning midfielder (Herrera, the chaos) and an attacking playmaker (Pogba, the freedom), with each of the personnel having defined roles. This structure of play was used in a total of 13 matches in the league between Swansea (A) and Hull (H).
Carrick’s primary role in attacking phases saw him dropping deep to collect the ball from defence and helping the team progress to the final third. On progression, United’s back four played a high line, with the full backs advancing to flanks and Carrick dropping in the centre as the other two CBs split wide. From there, he played line-breaking passes into United’s attacking players. The veteran also helped in providing alterations in the tempo of the game, whenever passes were played backwards to him due to higher pressure up the pitch upon bypassing the first line of the opponent. His vision and range of passing was well utilised when he dictated switches of play productively to engage United’s players in combinative play or spot the runs of full backs down both flanks. The defensive phases saw him position himself in order to slow down the opposition from transitioning to attack. He often made key interceptions in deeper areas to regain possession.
Players of Herrera’s quality in most top sides can often be seen as liabilities or weaknesses to exploit but it all depends upon the role assigned to them and the system they’re used in. This is the main reason as to why Herrera flourishes at United and Coquelin fails to perform at Arsenal despite there not being a significant difference in their abilities. To get the best out of him, Mourinho uses a simple principle: limiting his role to avoid exploitation of his weaknesses while simultaneously making good use of his best abilities. In the attacking phases, his output was restricted to supporting overloads on the flanks. However a major criticism of his playing style arises when his attacking intent is questioned due to his inability to play successful forward passes frequently. A logical explanation is that Mourinho’s reactive systems mostly focus on prioritising defense over offense – an approach which primarily minimizes the risk to concede and secondarily maximizes the probability of scoring. In the defensive phases, he plays his chief role of counter-pressing – a form of pressing which aims to prevent the phases of defensive organisation and offensive transition, and switch directly from defensive transition to the offensive organisation. His variation of counter-press bases an emphasis to limit the possession circulation of the opposition into insignificant areas. The players in advanced positions focus on blocking the more obvious passing lanes in an attempt to force the player in possession to switch play or play longer passes. Either way aerial lobbed are part of United’s game plan as their midfield is well drilled to win aerial duels and second balls consistently to regain possession. Another factor reducing the probability of attacks initiating from midfield is that longer passes tend to possess a lower accuracy. His role also saw him attain decent numbers in terms of interceptions and tackles p90, a good indicator of success in the implementation – evident by his output given below. (source – @fussballradars)
The Frenchman operated as the attacking playmaker with the license to dictate offensive play with negligible restrictions to his spaces. The role utilised his combination play and possession-shielding ability, as he often evaded pressure with quick changes of direction and accelerated movements to dribble into free spaces. In the defensive phases, he mainly supported the press led by Herrera, often helping recover possession in the areas around the centre circle by intercepting passes or winning second balls in the midfield. The shortcoming of his positional naivety in the defensive phases was well compensated by both Carrick and Herrera playing roles with higher defensive inclination relative to Pogba.
The 13-game spell saw him create 26 chances, being involved in a total of 6 goals (3 goals and 3 assists), averaging 1.76 key passes per game. To put these stats into context, the average conversion of key passes into assists is 13.11% which justifies for the dip in his attacking output by reflecting upon the dreadful finishing of United’s frontline in those games. Last season while playing as a trequartista or a three quarter specialist in the Juventus side, 28% of his key passes were converted into assists which is more than double the rate at United. The following diagram shows a distribution of the chance creation in different areas of the pitch. (source – @Squawka)
Despite the initial success of this formation, the latter matches saw certain weaknesses emerge, especially against high pressing sides. Carrick’s decline due to ageing has seen his press-resistant nature fade away, with a considerable fall in his distribution while playing against high pressing teams. His usual pass accuracy of 90% dropped to 70% against Spurs at home whereas despite a 2% drop in his pass completion rate against Liverpool, he only completed 22 passes in the game which shows a decrease of 53% in his average passes completed per game in the league (47). Either isolating him or pressing him often slowed down United’s first phase and progression to the final third as they were forced to build up through the flanks, or by engaging their full backs to drop into half spaces to nullify the overload in midfield, as well as providing alternate passing lanes to retain possession.
The lack of the profile of a player with the ability to control and play out vertically from the press into spaces in United’s midfield was also a major reason as to why proceeding with this setup wasn’t optimum. Herrera’s limited role shielded his weak passing ability which was exposed against similar teams. The effect on either of Herrera and Carrick saw a consequential decline in Pogba’s creative output as well, with the midfielder creating zero chances against both Spurs as well as Liverpool.
After consecutive draws against teams (especially Liverpool and Hull) Mourinho changed the formation to an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1.
The above image denotes the basic movements of the team while in possession. Mourinho mainly used two variations of the double pivot with Pogba’s partner as either of Carrick/Herrera which depended largely on whether he wanted his midfield to be inclined towards control or chaos respectively.
In defensive phases or out of possession, Mourinho tried to implement a passive pressing scheme. The pressing mainly focussed on preventing the opposition from creating chances or in a way prioritising upon nullifying their game plan while compromising on the team’s offensive output. Mourinho was flexible in adjusting the press so as to counter the tactics of his opponent which lead to the rise of quite a few variations. However the major aspects of the press remained the same in almost all games which I have discussed below.
The trigger of the press targeted the ball receiver who was pressed on his blind side to limit his time of making a decision, as the other players closed down on him. It often saw the side congest central spaces, forcing the build up of the opposition from wider areas. Successful recoveries of possession in midfield saw United force turnovers consistently to create counter-attacking opportunities. The defensive block used by Mourinho seemed to draw teams deeper due to their passive first line pressing. The pressure became increasingly intense as the opposition tried to advance and play vertical balls, often leading to dispossession. While pressing, Carrick and Pogba primarily worked on keeping the structure compact horizontally to avoid penetration, forming the first line of pressure with the wingers who tracked back.
In the attacking phases, the buildup advanced in two ways. The first one involved the left back playing a diagonal full back role, i.e. influencing the first phase from half spaces or drifting centrally rather than staying wide. This proceeded through the wide areas with Pogba engaging in combinative play with the LB and LW to progress to the final third. The other way required Carrick to circulate possession across United’s frontline with the no. 10 roaming freely to support the build up from midfield into the attacking third enabling cohesion & fluidity.
This version of the pivot allowed United to replace the usual passive pressing with a counter press due to presence of Herrera in midfield, while sustaining with the same pressure variations across the two lines or the medium block upon the opposition. The build up depended upon the personnel used at the no. 10 position whether it was Fellaini or either of Mata/Mkhitaryan.
With Fellaini, the first phase was substituted by playing long balls to midfield with the Belgian consistently winning aerial duels/second balls. Further progression saw him being used as a tool to evade pressure.
On the use of Mata/Mkhitaryan at 10, the first phase progressed through full backs down either flank. Mata/Mkhitaryan drifted in and out of the 10 space regularly while pulling the opposition’s midfielders wide and leaving space for Pogba to run into and dictate play in the offensive third.
Paul Pogba 2016-17 compilation pic.twitter.com/TCuwWqX6av
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) June 4, 2017
The setup made good use of Pogba’s evasive dribbling as he often bypassed the first line of opposition pressure with ease. Advancing further, he indulged in associative play by positioning himself intelligently in and around spaces. However his best moments came while initiating the attacking phase using vertical passes to engage the forwards into penetrative movements or utilising his vision to deliver a line breaking final ball tracking the runs of forwards from deep.
It saw an increase in his defensive responsibilities so as to maintain a balance in the pivot, which did lead to some average performances from him. However generational talents like Pogba only need game time to adapt, no matter what the role is.
His latter displays were mature and portrayed his versatility to good extents. In the 10 games he played under this tactical organisation in the league, he created 37 chances while being involved in 3 goals (two goals and an assist), a staggering rate of 3.7 key passes per game. Again it reflects upon a poor conversion rate of key passes to assists which hinders him from attaining his expected attacking output.
Verdict and Conclusion
The following data compares Pogba’s output in his final season at Juventus (AM template) to his first season at United (CM template) [source- @fussballradars]
The 2016/17 season in the Premier League saw Pogba created 57 chances while playing 30 games compared to his last season’s total of 54 chances despite playing 5 games more. However his attacking output dropped to 5 goals and 4 assists this season from 8 goals and 12 assists last season. Some of the fall has been caused by an underperformance from United in terms of actual goals scored (51) vs expected goals scored (xG 60.64) with all of United’s attacking players underperforming xG except Zlatan who missed the most no. of big chances in the Premier League (18), 5 more than any other player. He has hit the woodwork for a total of 6 times in the league this season. To take into consideration that some of the best goalkeeping performances at Old Trafford were seen this season informs us that after all, Pogba hasn’t had such a bad season.
I refer to Pogba as a world class creative talent who’s able to win matches on his own, belonging to a certain tier you could term as ‘gamechangers’. Whenever the manager has someone from that tier, he tries to create an adequate environment for the player to be able to exert his qualitative superiority in the system. Pogba dictates United’s midfield with every automatism proceeding through him. José’s system heavily relies on the Frenchman as it tends to exploit his qualities so as to dominate games from midfield.
A selection of "complete" central midfielders, measured by interceptions/tackles (X-axis) and chances created (Y-axis). pic.twitter.com/SLj8dGCsXh
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) May 21, 2017
The adaptation of the midfielder speaks volumes about his versatility as he has had to fulfill different profiles all by himself throughout the season, in order to attain the right balance in United’s midfield. His transition from playing in a system drilled with the principles of positional play to Mourinho’s setups is quite a difficult one. However certain level of immaturity still prevails in his game. A good example is him choosing to dribble than pass from areas vulnerable to concede turnovers from the opposition. The main question still remains regarding his most suited role. There is obvious potential for him to be a complete CM in the future.
However if his steady development continues, one could fantasise about Pogba moving in with the advent of the role of a roaming playmaker who contributes at both ends. With his skillset and boundless potential, dreams could attain absoluteness. At the end of the day, it’s only a matter of perception and time.