Manchester United fans were in high spirits in the summer of 2016. They had good reason to be.
Earlier in the summer, their club had already made its two most important acquisitions – a guarantee of becoming the champions again in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (champion in every league he has competed in) and another certainty of future greatness in Jose Mourinho – the “Special One”.
By August 9th they had added another big name to the list – Paul Pogba. The estranged kid was back, for a very large fee and an equally large salary. He was back, and along with Zlatan, and Jose, was going to make history in the Premier League. Or so they thought.
79 days since Pogba’s transfer, and after spending £170 million in the summer, the prospects of United’s future greatness or for that matter of being champions this season, are looking shaky. Manchester United is languishing at 7th position in the league after 9 game weeks, Jose has a point per game record very similar to his predecessor and after scoring in the initial fixtures, Zlatan seems isolated at the top of United’s line. Pogba, the third galactico from this summer, who was supposed to be the engine of United’s game, is also sputtering a bit, instead of purring smoothly. Let us look at one of those expensive non-performers – the future heart of the Manchester United side – Paul Pogba.
When United broke the Premier League transfer record, they would have hoped that in addition to the jersey sales, Pogba would bring with him at least the 20 goals he scored/created for Juventus in the previous season, that he would bring verve and strength in the United midfield. Few, if any, of those expectations have been met thus far however.
Stats vs the Last Season
Mourinho has deployed Pogba mostly on the left, behind his attacking midfielders and in a couple of instances, in the hole behind Ibra. Last year, Allegri put him either in a position similar to Mou’s primary preference or as the left midfielder in a 4-3-3. Perhaps due to this change and also due to different roles, Pogba’s performance is taking a hit.
His composite Squawka performance score is down from last season, as is his attack score. However, his defensive work seems to have improved, as has his possession. This possibly reflects Mourinho’s philosophy – he generally expects everyone to help out defensively but especially his midfielders.
Pogba’s improvement in possession is also reflected in his passing stats. He has more total passes, successful passes, and key passes (a pass that enables an unsuccessful shot on goal). His number of passes per game is up by 37%, which is a lot and I suspect it is partially due to his shorter passing this season.
These stats are not really bad. In fact, this is perhaps what Mourinho wants from him, strong defending and quick, accurate passing, which eventually allows him to penetrate the opposition’s defenses and score. But Pogba has scored one league goal this season that too from a set-piece and is yet to provide an assist. His attacking stats indeed show a significant dip. He is shooting less this season (0.5 shots per game) and that too less accurately. He is also shooting less from inside the area. To me, this definitely means that he is not getting into positions from where he can either shoot accurately or provide an assist.
On this Monday’s Football Weekly, a podcast by the Guardian, one of the panelists had mentioned that Pogba is not occupying the left side half-space as he used to for Juventus. His perception was that Pogba was more effective when he occupied and played in that channel a few yards inside of the left touchline from deep midfield to just outside the opponent’s box.
Looking at the heatmaps of Pogba for United when they win and when they lose also seems to tell the same story. Against Hull, Southampton, Zorya, and Fenerbahce, Pogba’s heatmaps show that he does occupy the left half-space and rarely ventures to the right of the centre circle. Depending on the opponent and his team members, he seems to move from that half-space to the hole behind the striker (against Fenerbahce – 2 goals) or straight up along the wing but his dominant position is in that half-space.
Pogba’s Heatmap for Some of United’s Wins
But when we look at United’s losses or bad performances this year, he is either in no clear dominant position i.e. he is literally all over the place (Stoke and Man City in the league). Or that he is very deep in his preferred half-space (Feyenoord). Or, as in the case against Chelsea last week, he was dominant in both left and right half-space around the hole behind the striker. This could also be as Mourinho had deployed him in the hole. But it seems safe to say that he is more effective when he plays primarily in the left half-space.
Pogba’s Heatmap for Some of United’s Losses
From this analysis, it seems to me that Pogba’s performances this year are getting affected by how Mourinho is deploying him. Mourinho seems to be expecting more defensive work and possession, while United need him to be shooting and assisting, especially as Zlatan’s form seems to have dipped. These are not contradictory expectations but for them to be fulfilled together, Pogba needs to be deployed and played in a zone he is most comfortable with. Right now it seems that he is trying really hard to fulfil Mourinho’s expectations and is sacrificing his preferred channel for this. This is clearly reducing his effectiveness.
I do not think that Man United have wasted the £89 million. They definitely over-paid for him but if a more flexible manager were to see Pogba’s strengths and allow him to play to them, he will be repaying his team much more effectively than he is doing now.