Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to admit it. “Juventus were an example for my Manchester United,” the former Old Trafford supremo once said, aware that he learned many lessons from Marcello Lippi and the Bianconeri during the 1990s.
The two coaches went head-to-head a number of times, with the Scotsman finally tasting victory as part of his famous 1999 Treble-winning campaign, eliminating the Old Lady in the Champions League semi-finals.
Looking at the current footballing landscape, it’s Juventus who once again look streets ahead, and their supremacy was clearly evident during last month’s 1-0 win in Manchester. However, rather than marvelling at the mental toughness of Max Allegri’s men, the biggest lesson that Jose Mourinho could learn from the Italian side is arguably in their former use of Paul Pogba.
During his time in Turin, the French midfielder developed from talented prospect into a complete player; one who United would eventually break the world transfer record in order to re-sign. Yet the Pogba currently turning out in red is still not a patch on the one who ran rampant while wearing black and white.
There appears to be little love lost between him and Mourinho who, during their time together in England, has benched the Frenchman, taken him off in disgust during games and stated publicly that he will never captain the side again during his tenure.
Increasingly negative in both his tactical approach and outlook on life at Old Trafford, Mourinho and his would-be star player could hardly stand in starker contrast.
“Whenever we play at home, we should attack, attack and attack,” Pogba told reporters shortly after the final whistle of September’s dull 1-1 draw at home against Wolves. “We are at Old Trafford. I think opponents get scared when they see Manchester United constantly attacking. I’m not the coach, but I think we have many different options to show on the pitch.”
The Portuguese manager has a well-earned reputation for cautiousness and control; a marked difference between the generally inhibited Pogba of Manchester United and the more adventurous marauder who turns out for his national team. While there is an obvious difference in quality between France, Juventus and the players Mourinho has at his disposal, there is also a clear tactical explanation for his more subdued performances.
There has been an upturn in Pogba’s form recently, although it’s notable that it has come during a run of matches where Manchester United have been desperately chasing victories – as they did at Bournemouth on Saturday, and at home to Newcastle, Valencia and Wolves with varying degrees of success.
At least Mourinho is playing him in a three more regularly now: before, United regularly set up in a 4-2-3-1 framework that deployed Pogba in a two alongside Nemanja Matic. The former Chelsea man couldn’t be left holding the fort alone, making them an unsuitable pairing reminiscent of the Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard axis that disappointed all too often for England.
Pogba’s unsuitability in such a system was evident at the World Cup: France boss Didier Deschamps used it in his team’s first match against Australia. After a dull, uninspiring victory that was eerily reminiscent of a Mourinho team, les Bleus abandoned the 4-2-3-1 formation. Deschamps shifted to a 4-3-3, dropping Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele and Bayern Munich playmaker Corentin Tolisso in favour of targetman Olivier Giroud and combative midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
Fielding the latter – in addition to N’Golo Kante – gave Pogba the freedom to break forward whenever he wanted, while Giroud’s presence pushed opposing defences deeper and created space between the lines where the former Juventus man knew he could thrive.
That was never more evident than in the final where, after curling a perfectly weighted ball into the path of Kylian Mbappe on the right flank (above), Pogba pushed up to the edge of the box (below) to net his side’s third goal.
His run stemmed from the knowledge that in a 4-3-3 he could push forward with two players behind to protect the defence. At Manchester United, there are signs of that being replicated: for their last two Premier League games, Pogba has featured in a three alongside Matic and Fred – and duly responded with a goal and two assists.
Uncertainty in central midfield surely hasn’t helped: Pogba is the only midfielder who has played all 11 league games in the middle this season. Matic has made the starting XI eight times there; Fred six; Marouane Fellaini four; Andreas Pereira two; Scott McTominay and Juan Mata both once.
During his time at Juventus he enjoyed a similar set-up to France, as Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal held firm to let Pogba express himself. The three-man midfield was a constant even as the team switched between 3-5-2 and 4-3-3.
Juve’s attacking players were never in his way, allowing him to complement them and contribute positively, reaching double figures for goals and assists in each of his last two seasons in Italy. That’s something he is yet to do at United, but looks to be on his way this year with five goals (albeit four of them from penalty situations) and four assists so far.
That stark difference between Pogba in a 4-2-3-1 and in his favoured role is backed up by data from Opta. Their 2017/18 statistics show that while Pogba scored the same number of goals per 90 minutes (0.27) in both systems, he managed more shots (3.45) and assists (0.53) in a three-man unit than he did as part of a two-man midfield (2.77 and 0.36 respectively).
With greater licence to join the attack, the Frenchman can seek out scoring opportunities for himself or create chances for others with his excellent passing skills, just as he did at the World Cup.
As Mourinho would undoubtedly agree, it is the impact on results that matters most – so it’s worth noting that in the 22 league starts of 2017/18 where Pogba was deployed in a three-man midfield, United’s record was far better (eight wins, one draw, one loss) than it was with him in a deeper double-pivot (seven wins, three draws, two losses).
With McTominay, Ander Herrera and Fred all available to play alongside Pogba and Matic, Mourinho is finally deploying a more effective system for Pogba than wasting his France international’s talents by asking him to sit deep.
Chasing the solution
After defeat to Juventus two weeks ago, Mourinho used his post-match press conference to profess admiration for the way Allegri’s men earned their Old Trafford victory, much like they did in the 1990s.
Perhaps now the Portuguese could channel such charm towards his star midfielder. Manchester United fans have allowed themselves to enjoy the good in Pogba so far this season, but it remains to be seen how long such feelings will last. This dynamic has rarely looked straightforward.
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