When I wrote about Paul Pogba being a £89 million mistake last season, my article concluded with the problems caused by Mourinho’s tactics and mentality that he adopted last season. Mourinho’s defensive approach meant that Manchester United’s most expensive player had to be perform ball-winning midfielder’s duties, even when he was deployed in the hole behind Ibrahimovic. I reached these conclusions by comparing Pogba’s stats for United last season and for Juventus in the previous season.
Last season, Mourinho played Pogba along with Herrera in the midfield of a 4-2-3-1 formation or with Fellaini and Carrick in a 4-3-3, depending on how much he intended to attack and how much he was bent on defending. Both sets of personnel ensured that Pogba always had one eye on his defensive or ball-winning duties. The result was a season, when the most expensive player (at the time) of all time was criticized for not being able to contribute adequately to United’s increasingly unidimensional attack.
But this summer, Jose Mourinho decided to get reunited with Nemaja Matić from Chelsea. Manchester United signed Matić for £40 million in late July, ensuring that his midfield starters change – both in terms of personnel, as well as duties. In the first three matches of the season, he has played Matić and Pogba in a two-man midfield (4-2-3-1). I feel this brief partnership is already showing signs of better results than the last season. Let us take a look at how this is becoming possible.
Matić’s Playing Style
In terms of positioning, Matić is generally positioned slightly behind, while Pogba is taking more forward positions. The figure below shows that:
Matić has better passing as well as defensive stats as compared to Pogba. From a metronome-like 88.4% pass accuracy to, aerial duels, clearances, blocks and interceptions, as well as tackles, Matić leads Pogba. When the Serbian had signed earlier this year, commentators had commented on how he did not have a creative game and was unidimensional. I feel that if this is considered true, Matić can make a lot of difference to the results that Paul Pogba achieves this season.
He has clearly taken over the role the Frenchman used to pursue last season. He is the one linking up with the defence and also distributing the ball further ahead. Matić is also the person to take care of defensive and ball-winning duties. This frees up Pogba to accomplish more attacking tasks.
Differences in Pogba’s Game
Matić’s playing style allows Pogba to play a bit more attacking game. His involvement in the opponent’s half and third has increased significantly this season. He has 16 more touches per game in the opponent’s half (10 more in final third), as compared to last season. He is also receiving 9 more passes per game in the final third. His distribution numbers have also gone up from last season. His number of successful passes (per game) in opponents’ half is 13.2 more than last season’s 36.8. In the final third, this number is up by 6.8 passes per game from last season’s 15.9.
These additional touches and passes in the opponents’ half and third have led to more chances and goal attempts as well. Pogba’s penalty area touches have increased by 1 touch per game to 4.7 and his goal attempts have increased by 0.9 from 3.1. He is taking shots much faster than last season – he is taking a shot every 22.5 minutes this season, while last season he took one every 28.3 minutes.
In terms of shot quality as well, he is able to do much better this season. Pogba’s expected goals per 90 minutes have increased to 0.51 per 90 minutes this season, from 0.22 last season. This means that with his current shooting form and quality, he is likely to score a goal every two games, while last season he was likely to score a goal every 5 games. As a result, his scoring has improved to 0.7 goals per game, as compared to 0.2 per game last season.
Positionally as well, the switch to the right side of the midfield seems to have suited the Frenchman. In fact last season, whenever he was played in the hole behind Ibra, his shot quality suffered for some reason. His expected goals per 90 minutes from midfielder and defensive midfielder positions were 0.25 and 0.23 goals respectively, but from an advanced central midfield position it was just 0.05. This raises the question that whether Ibrahimovic’s future return to the team will also see Pogba’s form regress or is this new season form a more permanent feature of his game.
The arrival of Nemanja Matic has expanded Pogba’s possibilities. He can prowl a bit more forward and shoot more often. Somehow the positional change to the right has also improved his shot quality. The player who was looking quite expensive but ineffective last season, can look forward to a very productive season, much in line with his price tag and he can thank his new midfield partner for setting him free.