Just before the close of the 2015-2016 summer transfer window, news broke that Chelsea had approached Juventus for the transfer of Paul Pogba for a fee around €85 million plus a player.
Once the news broke that Chelsea had made a bid for Pogba, speculation immediately began to run rampant as to how he would fit into the system that Mourinho employed at Chelsea. Imaginations ran wild with visions of how Pogba would fit perfectly in one of the two deep midfield slots in a 4-2-3-1, possibly pairing with Nemanja Matic if more steel was needed in midfield, or providing a driving creative force alongside Cesc Fabregas if more guile was needed to break down a stingy defence.
That, of course, never materialised, as Juventus rejected any bids from Chelsea, and the player himself elected to stay in Turin after the departures of Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo, and looking forward to being the focal point of Massimiliano Allegri’s midfield.
Fast forward a year, and in the summer of 2016, Mourinho, now manager of Manchester United, finally got his coveted midfielder, tempting Pogba back to Old Trafford where he was a member of the academy before signing with Juventus in 2012.
The fee was staggering, around €105 million or £89 million, and made Pogba the world’s most expensive player, with his transfer fee breaking the previous record of £85 million when Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid.
With Manchester United looking for more flair and dynamism after the Louis van Gaal era, Pogba was viewed as the missing piece to the midfield puzzle, a midfielder that could drive the play forward with his ability on the ball, but also offer power and strength that Manchester United’s midfield sorely lacked.
In reality, Pogba’s return the Premier League hasn’t gone quite as smoothly as expected, and quite possibly, the style of play that was expected from the Frenchman is not entirely the style that he’s comfortable playing.
In a sense, Pogba looks a bit like a man without a position. What Mourinho and many observers have noticed is that Pogba has a tendency to lack positional discipline during the course of play.
Early in the season, Manchester United deployed in at the base of a 4-2-3-1 and quickly realised that isn’t the best position for him or the team. Because Pogba likes to play with the ball and join the attack, he tended to wander around looking for the ball in advanced positions, including popping up on the wings at times, in order to influence the attack.
The knock-on effect was that his midfield partner was left exposed to counterattacks, and opponents began to overrun the United midfield in transition as Pogba left them a man short in the middle.
Lately, Pogba’s been deployed more in the number 10 role, but his tendency is to come to the ball and not necessarily make runs in support of the striker. Often, that’s meant that United have struggled a bit to create chances, especially in bigger matches, as Pogba coming deep for the ball has left United’s lone striker a bit isolated on his own.
Pogba’s a bit of a mystery, in truth. As he showed a Juventus, his best position is really more of a box-to-box midfielder with the licence to get forward and find space where he wants to play, but that requires a team to be built around him or a system that plays to his strengths.
Last season in Turin, Pogba had the benefit of the brilliant back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini that provided a good platform to allow Pogba freedom to attack. But even Allegri struggled to get the balance right early in the season, and it wasn’t until Allegri began playing more defensive-minded midfielders to complement him in a three-man midfield that Pogba began to shine.
At Manchester United, he doesn’t really have that solid midfield, including a holding midfielder, to allow him the platform to go and play how he wishes. It makes you wonder whether or not Chelsea would have found a similar problem had they signed him last season, given the presence of Fabregas, Matic, and John Obi Mikel as his potential midfield partners.
While Pogba is now a question to which Manchester United must find a solution, things might have worked out better for the Blues since he didn’t join last summer. This summer, the arrival of N’Golo Kante for less than half the fee of Pogba has provided the solid midfielder that Chelsea might have envisioned would be Pogba’s role.
Time will tell whether or not United’s investment in Pogba will pay off, but for now, Chelsea look to be just fine with having missed out on signing him last season and might actually be better off without him.