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“It’s time to start talking about his football and not his haircuts”. That’s something everyone’s heard pundits say at some point regarding Paul Pogba since his record breaking move to Manchester United in 2016. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do. In particular, we’re going to talk about why he is seen to be more effective for France rather than his club.

Like many midfielders, I believe Pogba is a player whose performances can appear to fluctuate due to his surroundings and what is demanded of him. In recent years we’ve seen the introduction of various systems and specific midfield roles in the Premier League and Manchester United are no exception to this.

Focusing on this season, we’ve seen Jose Mourinho use a few different systems, from a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. However, these systems have rarely been used with Pogba in mind as the main tool for them to work. The best way I feel this can be demonstrated is looking at Pogba before and after Manchester United’s eventful January.

Paul Pogba at Manchester United before January 2018

For the majority of this time, Manchester United played a 4-2-3-1 in which Pogba was joined by Nemanja Matic at the base of the midfield. Standing at 6’3” many may believe this role may suit Pogba as he could dominate midfields, however, in actual fact he is a much more attacking midfielder that likes to venture into advanced positions.

With four attacking players ahead of him when playing this deep, Pogba wasn’t used as one of the creative forces in the United side, but the enabler for those creative forces as the example below shows.

Here we see Pogba receive the ball in the first line of midfield. With Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead of him, its Pogba’s job to unlock them so they create chances further up the pitch.
Pogba plays what would be considered a simple pass to Mkhitaryan who quickly offloads to Mata, therefore bypassing Southampton’s midfield.
With the ball now with Mata, Pogba isn’t involved. Mata has the choice to play Marcus Rashford in behind, but much has been the theme of Manchester United this season, the ball goes to the safer option. In this case Luke Shaw who is making his run up the left which will give Southampton a second or two extra to position themselves correctly in the middle.

With everyone expecting Pogba to be the player that gets them off their seats instead of doing the simple things, him being in this role could cloud people’s judgement of his performances. Playing under a manager who renowned for dropping players who don’t conform, Pogba found himself stuck in this role on many occasions, failing to have a great impact on many games.

Paul Pogba at Manchester United after January 2018

The big turning point for Manchester United in January was the arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal. Although at first, he may have looked like a great signing, Sanchez has since proved to put United out of whack. As well as this seeing Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford get less game time as the new star needed to play, this also had consequences for Pogba’s game.

Despite Mourinho moving to a three-man midfield, which many United fans called for to release Pogba, here’s how he was hindered.

Firstly, this frame is to highlight where United’s two wingers are positioned. As Alexis and Mata prefer to come into central areas this could make Pogba and United as a team redundant. If Mata had stayed at right wing he could take advantage of the space created by Valencia keeping Gibbs occupied high up the pitch.
Pogba is now on the ball. However, with United’s wide players coming inside the sees West Brom crowd the area with six players. So, like the earlier example, Pogba has to move the ball onto Alexis who is in a better position to create.
However, the West Brom players engage the ball quickly, putting Alexis under enough pressure to attempt a first-time pass which Craig Dawson ensures doesn’t meet Mata.

Since his arrival at Old Trafford, Alexis has usually been played on the left wing. A position from where he likes to drift inside to create which can be very effective but can also clutter the areas where Pogba could be doing damage in that particular system.

Therefore, despite having the licence to roam into more advanced positions, those positions are too congested meaning he can’t affect the game in a way many would like. Something that can’t be said that often when he’s on France duty.

Paul Pogba With France 

Pogba made his senior France debut back in 2013 shortly after winning the Under 20’s World Cup and has since continued to impress for his country. Didier Deschamps took him to the 2014 World Cup where he scored and produced a great assist for Karim Benzema. He also impressed two years later at Euro 2016 his performances massively helped France to reach the final.

However, to keep with the most current state of Paul Pogba, I’m going to look at how he’s performed for France at this World Cup. In particular, France’s opening game where he was able to adapt to two styles and have a massive effect on the game.

Firstly, its important to note that France began this game using a 4-3-3 with N’Golo Kante holding, Pogba and Corentin Tolisso ahead in midfield and an interchangeable front three of Kylian Mbappé, Antionne Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele. Although it’s the same system as we saw with United, there’s a key difference which we’ll see.

In this frame Australia attempted to attack France’s right hand side, however, Kante wins the second ball. With the Australian’s now out of position and Tolisso dragging away Jedinak, this leaves Pogba in great space where he can make an impact.
Pogba needs just one touch and with the front three making encouraging forward runs, this is exactly what he wants. The £89m man then proves he can make his mark on games by choosing the right, defence splitting pass to Griezmann who is brought down just inside the box for a penalty which he scored.

Later in the game, however, the French landscape looked very different. With Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir coming on for Griezmann and Dembele, they were playing their more familiar 4-4-2 in search of the win. This saw Mbappé come more central as well as earlier substitute Blaise Matuidi keep the width on the left wing, and here are the results.

Now with more space ahead of him, Pogba is able to advance and change the game yet again. This time he plays a one-two with Mbappé to quickly get past his marker and drives into the highlighted space.
Thinking a step ahead Pogba’s able to play the ball first time in Giroud who is renowned for his ability in these situations. The striker draws the Australian defender to him on the turn before offloading back to Pogba who has almost created this chance out of nothing.
Getting the luck his endeavour deserved, Pogba’s touch is lifted onto the crossbar and in by Behich who was late making his recovery run to cover the defender drawn out by Giroud. France in-turn got that all important three points.

Summary

Overall, the big reason why Pogba appears to be much more effective when playing for France is because the belief put in him by Deschamps along with the personnel around him. With France, their very attacking style of play lends itself to Pogba as he is able to venture into more dangerous positions without being crowded out as well as having the players around him to allow him to be the creative linchpin.

However, at Manchester United, despite being their record signing Jose Mourinho just doesn’t seem to have as much belief in him. The role he performs for United is much more restricted and safe which means he has less opportunities to shine as he does for his country. Whether that changes after this summer, we’ll just have to wait and see.