Paul Pogba’s skill set might evolve under the guidance of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United but, at present, he’s simply a 4-3-3 player rather than a 4-2-3-1 player. While the systems are not entirely dissimilar, there are crucial differences in the midfield duties.
4-3-3 suits a pure holding player and a box-to-box midfielder, whereas 4-2-3-1 is probably better for distribution-based central midfielders who like playing in a partnership, and inevitably better for No. 10s. United appear to have more players suited to 4-3-3, which makes it slightly surprising Mourinho seems determined to persevere with 4-2-3-1.
Pogba has been criticised for his apparent need to play in a 4-3-3, although none of the demands have come from the player himself. Although considered something of an individualist, the 23-year-old’s professionalism is probably his most underrated quality.
He’s basically the type of player, who will happily play wherever and that also hints at the fact that he’s somewhat tactically indisciplined. That doesn’t mean tactics don’t affect his performance, however, and the positioning of his teammates is crucial.
It’s been suggested that Pogba’s need for a 4-3-3 means he can only play one position, which completely misunderstands the argument. There’s no suggestion that he is entirely unable to play a deep-lying midfield role or as a No. 10 in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1; indeed, on occasion he’s played both perfectly well this season.
But it’s simply not his optimum position, which remains as a box-to-box player in a three-man midfield, with license to storm forward from deep.
That’s on the basis of his outstanding performances for Juventus, although it’s worth remembering that Pogba was usually playing in a 3-5-2 system for the Italian club. And while the basic format of the central trio is identical, with one holding player and two breaking forward just ahead, there is a difference to the runs midfielders are forced to make.
In a 4-3-3, the wide forwards stretch the opposition’s defensive line, theoretically creating space for midfielders to run into. Plus, there’s also a large gap between the wide men and the centre-forward, further inviting storming runs into scoring positions from deep.
In the 3-5-2, there are two centre-forwards and an absence of wingers. At Juve, Pogba often drifted into wider positions, especially when his side played direct football, and attacked before the wing-backs could push forward.
In that sense, Pogba was essentially playing as a mezzala, an Italian term that essentially means a half or false winger: A midfielder playing towards the flank despite being a central player.
English football’s lack of similarly detailed tactical term is partly what limits debate when it comes to players like Pogba. An Italian would instantly understand the difference between a regista and a trequartista, for example, referring to the deep and advanced points of the midfield.
In England a player is simply a midfielder and even “attacking midfielder” doesn’t quite do the job: Is the player in the manner of Frank Lampard, essentially a goalscoring No. 8, or an attacking midfielder in the manner of Mesut Ozil, a No. 10 who floats in behind the opposition?
Pogba’s style is actually classically English; traditionally this country has liked all-action midfielders who do a bit of everything. Steven Gerrard is the perfect example, a man who at his peak was probably the world’s best all-round footballer: tackling, passing, heading, tackling, crossing, shooting and covering plenty of ground.
But those abilities were precisely why managers sometimes found it difficult to decide upon his optimum position. Rafael Benitez never really trusted him in central midfield and sometimes used him on the right of a quartet, before eventually pushing him forward to play as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system.
It’s easy to see parallels between Gerrard and Pogba and no surprise that the Frenchman has looked more comfortable supporting United’s striker rather than shielding the defence. Maybe he needs to be less of an all-rounder and more of a specialist to really become one of the world’s greatest players.
Hopefully Pogba doesn’t become another Juan Sebastian Veron, who arrived at Old Trafford from Lazio for a club record £28 million in 2001 but was underwhelming. In part, that was because United couldn’t find the right position for him, despite Sir Alex Ferguson changing his formation from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1.
Veron and striker Ruud van Nistelrooy were purchased specifically to play in that new system 15 years ago and there is certainly a similarity between those arrivals and the club’s recent signings of Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It’s important to stress that Pogba has, by no means, been a flop. We’ve seen driving midfield runs, a couple of spectacular goals, and some wonderful passes that have often been wasted by Ibrahimovic. For a world record fee, though, people expect consistency. Until Pogba plays in his optimum role, that remains unlikely.