ast summer, as Manchester United toured Japan, Paul Pogba was openly talking about seeking “a new challenge somewhere else”. Frustrated at United’s failure to qualify for the Champions League and with the general sense of drift at the club, and in the expectation of a lucrative move, it made sense for him to be considering his future. A year on, it seems increasingly probable he will stay at Old Trafford. If Pogba does stay United will, for the first time since Alex Ferguson left, have a squad that looks vaguely coherent.
Nothing in football is certain – particularly where Mino Raiola, Pogba’s agent, is concerned – but the sport’s new economy militates against a move. Pogba’s contract expires next summer but United have the option of triggering an additional year. With advertising and sponsorship down, no immediate prospect of fans returning and a more general sense of uncertainty, it’s difficult to see any club being prepared to pay the sort of fee United would demand or the wages Pogba (and Raiola) would expect, particularly given he has managed five starts in the league this season because of an ankle injury. Even if a super-club does feel an urge to splash out, younger and more appealing talents have emerged to tempt them. Such is the fickle nature of these things.
Pogba, now 27, is entering what should theoretically be his peak years and his decision whether to commit to United takes on greater importance. As well as the factors making it harder to leave, there are increasingly powerful reasons to stay. Last season, inconsistent as he was, he remained United’s most penetrative player. His frustration at the way United fell away and missed out on Champions League qualification was understandable. But with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, the pieces of United’s midfield are finally coalescing.
The fundamental problem with Pogba is that he is a box-to-box player in an era that struggles to accommodate them. In a modern midfield he is neither fish nor fowl, his wide array of skills paradoxically making it difficult to know exactly where he should be deployed. There is something of Steven Gerrard or Bryan Robson about him: it feels as though he should be clattering into tackles just outside his own box but also surging forward, scoring a dozen goals a season. As midfields have tended to split into two bands and the game has become increasingly compact, that sort of player doesn’t really exist any more.
Sit Pogba deep and he always seems constrained. He is perfectly capable of playing as a defensive midfielder but it always feels a waste, as though the technical ability and pace that make him exceptional aren’t being utilised. Even during the World Cup, when he usually operated alongside N’Golo Kanté at the back of France’s midfield, there was that sense of him playing in a straitjacket.
Move him further forward, though, and it can feel that his power and aggression are underused; besides which, he always seems more comfortable with the ball in front of him rather than receiving it with his back to goal. It’s not a coincidence that Pogba’s longest sustained run of excellence came under Antonio Conte at Juventus, where he had a hybrid role on the left of a midfield three.
Fernandes has been revelatory since his arrival from Sporting in January. It’s not just that he has scored two and set up three in five league games, it’s that he appears to be the tactical key that makes everything else make sense. In those five games Fernandes has played in three different systems: twice as the central creator in a 4-2-3-1, and three times behind a front two, twice in a 3-4-1-2 and once in a 4-3-1-2. There may be some reluctance to field Pogba deep in a 4-2-3-1 (even if he did win the World Cup in that role), but either of the other two formations, or a 4-3-3, would seem to accommodate both him and Fernandes comfortably.
Fernandes plays high, Scott McTominay or Nemanja Matic sits and Pogba adjusts his position according to the situation, linking front to back. In a 4-3-1-2, there would be the additional presence of Fred flanking the holder on the other side.
It is true that when Pogba was at his best at Juve he was playing in a 3-5-2 and benefited enormously from having Kwadwo Asamoah surging past him at left wing-back and it’s also true that without that presence outside him he hasn’t always looked comfortable on the left side of a 4-3-3 at United. But the balance is better now. A hybrid role has opened up and Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams are attacking left-backs who should be able to offer at least some of the overlapping support Asamoah did.
Questions remain about Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s capacities as a manager and whether he really is capable of organising the precise attacking patterns now that have become essential at the very highest level – counterattacking alone is not enough – but the personnel now available to him offers few excuses. There is work to be done, notably at centre-forward and centre-back, and remainders from previous regimes still to be shed, but with Marcus Rashford and Pogba back from injury this squad is finally beginning to resemble something that might result from a plan.
United had gone 11 games unbeaten before the suspension of the league. In the sense of breaking a decent run, lockdown came at just the wrong time for them. But in the longer term, it may serve a dual purpose. Not only does the financial uncertainty make it less likely any suitor will spend heavily on Pogba, it also gives Solskjær what is in effect a nine-game mini-season when he can assess his options, persuade players who were having doubts this is a club moving in the right direction and, vitally, qualify for next season’s Champions League. In a very short time, Fernandes has made a lot of the pieces seem as though they fit. Pogba is probably the most important.