DATA DEPENDENT: Manchester United’s Paul Pogba Problem

Paul Pogba. He’s Manchester United’s Jekyll and Hyde, one moment brilliant, the next moment infuriating. The only thing consistent about him since arriving at Old Trafford is his inconsistency. At this point, it appears as if he’s been written off the United fan base and the football media, and with good reason. The narrative suggests he’s been a let-down at best, an abject failure at worst. To quote well known United supporter, Anish Gajree, “I want Pogba out.”

So how bad has the mercurial Frenchman been during his return to the Premier League compared to the player everyone thought was coming from Italy? Let’s have a look.

Pogba joined Juventus in 2012 after being sent packing by Sir Alex Ferguson. His first appearance on the pitch for Juve occurred in a friendly against Benfica, replacing Andrea Pirlo. From that day he continued to improve, proving himself to be durable and productive. Massimiliano Allegri’s favored Conte-esque 3-5-2 formation provided Pogba with enough freedom to take advantage of his creativity and technical ability. During his spell at la Vecchia Signora, the Frenchman partnered with Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini, Arturo Vidal, Juan Cuadrado, Patrice Evra, and Claudio Marchisio. By 2015, Pogba had proven himself so much that Allegri awarded him with the number 10-shirt (after Carlos Tevez’s departure), an honor that put him on par with the likes of Alessandro del Piero, Roberto Baggio, and Michel Platini. That same year, he was short listed for the UEFA European Player of the Year.

TEAMYEARMINUTESGOALSASSISTSG+A/90
Juventus20121741500.26
Juventus20133066780.44
Juventus20142108830.47
Juventus201530198120.6

Using Goals+Assists/90 minutes as an indicator, it’s clear that he improved each year at Juventus. In 2015, he had the best showing of his young career scoring eight goals and contributing 12 assists. His G+A/90 leaped from 0.47 the prior season to 0.60.

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Coming off the season of his life, Pogba returned to Manchester United in 2016. He arrived with the expectation that he’d at least match, if not surpass, the productivity he displayed in Turin. What’s more, he walked into a locker room desperate to recapture the a sense of direction and confidence. The responsibility fell on Pogba and Jose Mourinho to revitalize the team after a pair of false starts under David Moyes followed by Luis Van Gaal.

Perhaps the weight of a massive club’s expectations played a major role in the first year stumble of both Pogba and Mourinho that saw them finish the season a disappointing 6th place on the table. (A slightly better than average Zlatan Ibrahimović and nearly geriatric Wayne Rooney did little to help the cause, mind you.)

Another possible explanation for the Frenchman’s horrible season could be the difficulty of transitioning from Allegri’s fluid system and into Mourinho’s plodding — almost elephantine — approach to football. Either way, Pogba posted the second worst numbers of his career up to that point, a G+A/90 of 0.31. Let be said, however, that the 2016 Manchester United team did manage to perform a minor miracle by winning the UEFA Europa League, granting them a spot in the following season’s Champions League.

TEAMYEARMINUTESGOALSASSISTSG+A/90
Manchester United20162608540.31
Manchester United201721486100.67
Manchester United201830061390.66
Manchester United20191204130.3

Surprisingly, considering the sulking on display these days, Pogba bounced back with a ferocity having his statistically best year (again using G+A/90 as the indicator) averaging 0.67 G+A/90. This outperformed his much lauded 2015 performance at Juventus, despite vocal discontent among supporters regarding the team’s style of play. Unfortunately, his performance was overshadowed by his conduct on the pitch and during practice, in particular his bust-up with Mourinho which was caught on camera. Two years running, the Special One played the miracle worker, this time leading a very average team to a second place finish. This did nothing to placate supporters who bemoaned what they called ugly football. (Of course, the absurdity of their grievances calls to mind Johan Cruyff who famously said “Results without quality is boring. Quality without results is pointless.” (And yes, I switched the sentence order but the point remains the same.))

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The following season, the rift between Pogba and Mourinho bled from the divided locker room and onto the pitch. The mercurial Frenchman’s productivity suffered as a result and without the team’s engine firing on all cylinders, United struggled. Between the start of the season in August until Jose Mourinho’s unceremonious dismissal mid-December, Paul Pogba managed a paltry 3 domestic goals and 2 assists. (Whether it was by design is depends on whose side you’re on, though the evidence is pretty damning that it was.) 

With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the Manchester United helm, Pogba was a midfielder reborn. He went on a tear, scoring 10 domestic goals and 7 assists. (Amazing what you can do with a little bit of effort…) He finished the season with the second best G+A/90 of his career, 0.66, an amazing feat when you consider he did it in half a season. As a team, Manchester United returned to 6th place, despite a startling run of form for three months.

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Then 2019 happened and if Paul Pogba thought he had it bad with a chastened Jose Mourinho, he hadn’t had the pleasure of dealing with an emboldened Solskjaer, new contract in hand and the weight of the club behind him. Somehow, inexplicably as we’ll see, the decision was made to play Pogba deeper in the midfield. Every match was like quicksand, sucking him further and further away from where he wanted to be.

While Pogba split his time between left midfield and the deeper double pivot role during Mourinho’s tenure, he played that role permanently under Soskjaer. As a result, his productivity fell off a cliff. Everything suffered. His G+A/90 dropped to 0.30.

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If you juxtapose his productivity as an attacking midfielder to when he plays a deeper role, the contrast is striking. It’s not a good place for him. And just to drive this point home, we’ll turn to his xG and xA as a straight midfielder and as a defensive midfielder.

xGGxAA
MC32.392918.8531
DMC978.058

Forget his goals. In a more forward role, Pogba outperforms his xA by a ridiculous 12.5 assists.

Now, logically, if you are going to surrender that much production from Pogba, there should be good reasons especially considering his 100 million price tag. According our trusty Football Manager Database (when we can afford Opta we’ll let you know), Pogba is borderline disaster defensively, registering a much less than average 55 (overall, Pogba rates 85). So having him playing deep makes no sense from a defensive point of view. He’s actually more of a liability than advantage. Just take a look at his performance against Brighton and Hove Albion where he gifted them a penalty thanks to getting caught out of position then trying to compensate. On top of that, he put up these defensive numbers.

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Of course, Solskjaer isn’t playing Pogba in the double pivot for his defense. He’s there to be the passing outlet when playing out the back. In that role, you can make the case that he’s done his job to a degree. Looking at his Shot Creating Actions (SCA) and his Goal Creating Actions (GCA), he has been relatively consistent since 2017.

YEARSCASCA90GCAGCA90
2017964.02180.75
20181414.22180.54
2019574.2670.52

Considering his deep role, Pogba also managed 118 attacking ⅓ passes, compared with 225 in 2018 and 179 in 2017.

He’s a liability defensively, not offensively.

Another reason for sticking Pogba out of position may be because there are better players in his preferred position. Prior to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, Andreas Pereira (FMDB Rating: 68) and Jesse Lingard (FMDB Rating: 70) occupied the central role ahead of Pogba. Now that’s a curious decision since neither of them are even close to Pogba’s level when he’s playing in his preferred position. Not by a country mile. (NOTE: None of this takes into account Pogba moping around the pitch.)

Then there’s Marcus Rashford (FMDB Rating: 76) occupying the left wing position that Pogba can also play and which he played mostly for Mourinho. While Rashford is quality and arguably on par with Pogba in terms of talent, he is still much more a work in progress than Pogba. The fact that United are paying Pogba 100 million makes it all the more questionable.

But what about Bruno “The Savior” Fernandes (FMDB Rating: 79)? He’s a worthy replacement for Pogba but they are very similar when the Frenchman is allowed to play in his preferred position. So it’s actually a really strange move by United. It’s like bringing sand to the beach. 

And adding yet another attacking midfielder on top of those two? Only United.

How has this translated on the pitch? In a word, streakiness.

Per Anish Uppal, using xG as a guide, when United went on their winning streak that started on January 26th, they overperformed their xG by 6.75 or 22.5%. Meanwhile, players like Mason Greenwood over performed by 4.39. In addition, there is the argument that many of Manchester United’s lackluster performances were masked by penalties. 

Results masked by penalties last season:

  • Go ahead pens = 7
  • Equaliser pens = 2
  • Total pens = 13
  • Missed pens = 3

So 90% of the pens they scored were pivotal.

In the end, however, football is about results (see aforementioned Cruyff quote) and, whether it’s because of luck or favoritism, there’s no denying that United strung together a whole lotta W’s in 2019. This season will prove whether the season was a penalty-driven outlier or something to build on. Whether Paul Pogba plays a role — good or bad — in that is the question. One thing that is certain, Manchester United’s use of the Frenchman has been asinine and a problem of their own making.

WORDS: Marc Landas w/research by Anish Uppal.

DATA SOURCES: Understat, FB-Ref, Football Manager Database

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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