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What Paul Pogba's Arrival Would Mean for Manchester United's Midfield

Published by Bleacher Report on Thu, 04 Aug 2016

Paul Pogba has been a Manchester United player before. Indeed, there was a time when he was supposed to be the future of Sir Alex Ferguson's midfield. In the summer of 2011, at the height of the unending Wesley Sneijder-to-United rumours Sir Alex said, per Sky Sports:The young boy Pogba is showing great promise. We are quite positive about him.If we hold him back, what is going to happen' He will leave in a couple of years' time when his contract has finished. We have to give him the opportunity to see how he will do in the first team.Of course, that is not quite how it panned out. Pogba was denied the opportunity to prove himselfnot by Sneijderbut by Ferguson. Sir Alex had United fans question his decision-making when a midfield injury crisis in late December 2011 led him to start ParkJi-Sung and Rafael da Silva in the centre of the park rather than the Frenchman. Paul Scholes soon came out of retirement.It turns out there would have been a place in the squad for Sneijder after all.But that is ancient history. In football terms, five years is a lifetime. And United are reportedly on the verge of re-signing Pogba at tremendous expense, correcting Fergie's last big mistake.Max Nerozzi of Turin-based outletLa Stamparecently said (h/t Sport Witness): "Pogba is on route to a new life at Jose Mourinhos house in Manchester."This, combined with the story Bastian Schweinsteiger has had to move to the under-23s' dressing room, reported by Jack Gaughan of the Daily Mail, will mean United's midfield will have a different look under managerMourinho than it did under previous boss Louis van Gaal.Schweinsteiger apparently has no place at Mourinho's United, which makes sense from a tactical point of view. Plenty of fans would rather the new manager had taken a more conciliatory approach with the World Cup winner, but mostly for personal rather than professional reasons.The former Germany international has been a warm presence at the club. He looked enthused to be playing for the Red Devils and often had a guiding word on the pitch for the youngsters around him.But his performance level and the fact he missed a big chunk of last season through injury mean phasing him out is a bit of a no-brainer. Were Van Gaal still in charge, with prosaic possession football the order of the day, then there would still have been a place for Schweinsteiger in the side.But beyond the occasional cameo it would be hard to see where the former Bayern Munich man would fit into a Mourinho side. And given he is one of the club's best-paid players, earning 200,000 per week, according to Jack Wilson of the Daily Star, he cannot be kept on just for occasional cameos.Assuming Schweinsteiger leaves and Pogba does arrives, how would United's new-look midfield function'The first key question is whether Mourinho will stick with the 4-2-3-1 he deployed in pre-season or move to a 4-3-3.That would seem to depend on how effective Wayne Rooney can be at No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1. After all, the midfielders in United's squad lend themselves to playing in a 4-3-3.This is certainly true for Pogba. As Greg Johnson of Squawka wrote on 27 July: "At Juventus, Pogba was at his best when playing in a free role on the left of a three-man midfield, combining with the runs of Patrice Evra from left back, playing the ball off his team mate as he bombed on down the flank."It is trueAnder Herrera, Michael Carrickor Morgan Schneiderlin could function as his partner in a two-man midfield, which would allow Rooney a natural role in the side in the hole behind the striker.However, given that trio and Pogba are ideally suited to playing in a midfield three, the opportunity cost that would come with the inclusion of a dedicated No. 10 may be too great.Each of the possible partners for United's potential new man has limitations in a two-man midfield. Carrick's is obvious: his advancing years and their effect on his physicality.Herrera is an aggressive, forward-thinking midfielder. He certainly gives a defensive contribution in terms of pressing and tackling, but partnering him with the France international would prioritise attack over defence to a reckless degree. It seems a remarkably un-Mourinho-like combination.Schneiderlin may be the best fit, but he is unproven at the top level. He was in the France squad for Euro 2016, but Blaise Matuidi was preferred as a partner for Pogba when Didier Deschamps used a two-man midfield. His time at Southampton showed him to be a natural box-to-box midfielder rather than the holder Van Gaal tried to turn him into.In a three with Carrick holding, Herrera or Schneiderlin given a box-to-box role andPogba assigned freedom on the left-hand side, each midfielder's strengths would be emphasised and his weaknesses compensated for by the presence of the others.Sacrificing that obvious balance for Rooney could be worth it if he defies expectation and excels at No. 10 for the first time in years. It will definitely be worth it during the United and England captain's inevitable purple patcheshe has never gone all that long between good spells.But as a long-term strategy, United's squad looks tailor-made for a 4-3-3.That would mean no obvious position for Rooney or Juan Mata, but the rest of United's best players would be well served by that deployment.The centre-backs would be protected by the numbers in midfield. Both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial are natural fits for the wide roles. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford could share centre-forward duties.And it certainly looks to be the means to get the best out of Pogba. Back in March, Sam Lopresti wrote for Bleacher Report:[T]he best way to get Pogba focused is to surround him with a talented midfield. That means keeping the likes of [Claudio] Marchisio and [Sami] Khedira fit and on the field. Surrounding him with players who can take the pressure off will allow Pogba to play the way he did in the Derby della Mole last week, when he registered a goal and two assists.A 4-3-3 would be likely to provide that function for Pogba in a way in which the responsibilities of a 4-2-3-1 would not.However, there has so far been little suggestion of a reduced role for Rooney, so 4-2-3-1 will likely remain the order of the day. Speaking to Martin Samuel of the Daily Mailrecently, Rooney said:When [Mourinho] came to see me before the tournament, I came away very happy. He wants us to play with a lot of freedom, a lot of rotation in the forward positions, lots of opportunities to score goalsand I think I can do that, score the goals to help us be successful.That will mean a good deal of strain on United's midfield in general and Pogba in particular. There is plenty of optimism around the Red Devils. The squad has seen a major injection of quality this summer. Should Pogbaarrive, that would be even more evident.However, there is work to be done. A balancing, blending process is required. We do not yet know what the shape of United's midfield will be when the season begins, but do not bet against it changing as the campaign progresses. Mourinho is tasked with getting the best out of his talented new charges, and it may take some experimentation for him to do so.
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