Down The Wings

Manchester United Fan Blog

How will Ralf Rangnick use Paul Pogba?

(Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

On August 9th, 2016, supporters across the world were overcome with excitement by the signing of midfield superstar Paul Pogba, a transfer worth £94.5m that was seen as the solution to United’s post-Fergie woes at the time. Fans spoke glowingly about the acquisition of a dominant central midfielder who could take a game by the scruff of the neck and lead the club to great things.

As of January 2021, nearly five and a half years later, Pogba’s name is surrounded by controversy, with fans often talking about the economic and financial figures surrounding the World Cup winner as opposed to his immense ability with the ball at his feet. His current deal is expiring in the Summer, and credible reports suggest there is a contract on the table worth £400,000 a week in an attempt to get him to stay; it is fair to say that operation ‘Pogback’ has never really flourished in the way that many fans had hoped.

However, whatever side of the spectrum fans lie on in regard to Pogba, they ought to prepare themselves for the return of the 28-year-old, with Ralf Rangnick confirming in his Brentford pre-match press conference that “he could be an option” after the upcoming international break.

The German also noted that “he showed what kind of extraordinary player he could be” in training on Monday.

This begs an interesting debate: where does Pogba fit in at United between now and the end of the season?

Player power dynamics

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In short, Pogba probably does have a part to play between now and the Summer, but whether or not that is down to his usefulness to Rangnick’s tactics or his power as a big earner is up for discussion. Even Pogba’s biggest fans will tell you that he has a large influence and that he definitely seems to call the shots at times.

It is no secret that there are players in the current squad that hold exceptional authority in the dressing room, and the player power dynamic has infested the club for years now, undoubtedly down to the poor structure that the club operates under.

Whilst we can all speculate numbers, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that he is one of the bigger earners at the club, enhanced by brand deals that see both himself and the club benefit. Whether it be the flashiest pair of Adidas football boots or his infamous Pepsi commercials for the UEFA Champions League, this is all massively important to a club who are solely money-orientated.

With that being said, it would come as no surprise if Pogba’s contract has terms and conditions that require him to play when available for selection. He has an immense social media presence and- when smiling- he is the star man of United’s online accounts. He has a following of his own, one that has been nicknamed ‘Pogba FC’, which brings the desired exposure and interaction that the people upstairs crave. Many members of the United playing staff love Pogba, and perhaps Rangnick will feel under pressure to appease some of the cliques in the dressing room by giving the Frenchman minutes.

Given the poor performances of certain players, the manager’s selection of some suggests that there are people behind the scenes that are forcing the German interim boss to play underperforming stars based on their value to the club.

Ed Woodward wouldn’t like it if Rangnick dropped £80m club captain Harry Maguire or Marcus Rashford MBE, and that is probably the same with commercially valuable Pogba.

Better than the current crop

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People are often quick to brand Pogba as a bad egg who has a sour influence amongst the dressing room, but even those who aren’t fond of him surely have to reside themselves to the fact that he is better than what United are currently throwing out. Scott McTominay and Fred have become ever-present in the team over the last couple of seasons, and whilst their passion for the badge cannot be disputed, their ability with a football has been questionable at best.

The progression of the ball from defence to attack has been slower than a snail in cement with ‘McFred’ pulling the strings, and even though Nemanja Matic has got a good forward pass in his locker, Pogba stands head and shoulders above all three of the current suitors in regard to his passing qualities; the former Juventus man can rival Kevin De Bruyne when it comes to switching the play.

Whether it be short passes, long balls, or even the cute through balls that nobody else can even see, Pogba has the ability in the pass that others don’t. United’s attackers have been starved of good service in his absence, and the likes of Bruno Fernandes will certainly be better off with more chances to get on the ball.

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More forward passes, more chances, more goals. If only it were that simple? Of course, there are off-the-ball runners and tactical insights to consider, but you don’t need to be the Godfather of the Gegenpress to understand the value that better ball progression offers to a football team.

It would be a disservice to Pogba to not mention his other qualities as well. Standing at 6 ft 3 inches tall, he is an imposing physical presence on any midfield in terms of strength, and would obviously be effective in the aerial duels (United have taken over 100 corners this season and have failed to convert any of them). He matches McTominay in that department, and whilst he won’t have the tenacity and pace across five yards like Fred does, he makes up for it in his positional sense and chance creation mindset. Notice how there has been no mention of Donny van de Beek, but it appears the Dutchman simply isn’t going to play.

Whether it be table-topping Manchester City or rock-bottom Norwich, United always struggle to win midfield battles, not giving themselves leverage to build on in games. Pogba would definitely enhance the team’s chances.

The tactical element

Having been branded the Professor by many in the industry, Rangnick is no stranger to tactical set-ups and what differing formations can offer a side. Over the course of his short tenure at the Theatre of Dreams so far, he has dabbled with different tactical outlays to get the best out of this side. 4-2-2-2 seemed to be the one that United would go for, but fans have also seen the usual 4-2-3-1 used in certain games since the appointment of the interim boss.

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Managers gone by would often use Pogba as part of the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, but that requires an efficient, disciplined holding midfielder who is willing to sit and cover the back-four whilst Pogba has the freedom to go forward and do what he does best. The issue is- as many fans have berated the club for in recent seasons- United don’t have that player that can accompany Pogba in the midfield pair, or not one of good enough quality for that matter.

With McTominay’s lack of mobility, Fred’s ill-discipline and van de Beek’s love affair with the substitute’s bench, Matic is the closest thing at the club to being that player. If Rangnick had the services of a younger Matic, then the problem would be solved, but the Serbian is now 33 years old, unable to play twice in a week, and is likely going to leave on a free transfer in the Summer of 2022.

Perhaps Pogba could operate in the attacking midfield role, or even off the wing like he did under Solskjaer at times, but that would dislodge Fernandes and would likely bench wingers who really need to be playing football. The thought of adopting a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba in it is an appealing one, but whether or not Rangnick can do so remains to be seen.

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Using a 4-2-2-2 system would allow more options in regard to Pogba fitting in. Alongside a midfielder who is willing to sit, regardless of who can be utilised, Pogba would be able to play in a position that could allow him to make passes from deep, as well as being able to push forward when required. He could also play as one of the two attacking midfielders/wingers behind the strikers, which would allow him to play even further forward and not have to focus as much on his defensive work (an area that many see as a weakness to his game).

Another way he could fit in is with a 4-3-3. In this system, a team typically has the holding midfielder, the attacking midfielder and the box-to-box midfielder that Pogba would probably be. Conversely, he could be used as the attacking midfielder in that formation with Fernandes operating more as a box-to-box, with Bruno having the grit and tenacity to do so. Fans will recall Pogba thriving in a 4-3-3 from the days of Ander Herrera in Solskjaer’s interim period, or even in 2020 when himself, Fernandes and Matic were unstoppable as United surged into the top-four.

Personal motives

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As has been spoken about, Pogba is out of contract in the Summer and will be actively seeking potential suitors for the 2022/23 season. This means that he has to put himself in the shop window and will want to play as much football as possible between now and the Summer to show the world just what he can do. This could mean Pogba will have an increased willingness to be in the team and will hopefully perform even better as a result.

Contrastingly, it is not outrageous to suggest that Pogba’s desire may have lessened upon his return to the team. It appears he wants to leave. Will he want to risk his fitness in 50-50 challenges? Will he make himself available for selection if he is only 75% fit? Fans want to believe that Pogba loves the club and will fight tooth and nail for it, and whilst that could certainly be the case, people ought to be realistic when considering his mindset.

Expect to see Paul Pogba feature in the FA Cup 4th round tie at home to Middlesbrough, a game that will take place in February after the international break.

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