Manchester United needs a top class Regista to get the best out of Paul Pogba
How do you deal with an enigma like Paul Pogba? Supremely talented yet unable to play a specific role. How to deploy and get the best out of him has been one of the biggest issues surrounding Manchester United this season.
Team manager Jose Mourinho, who isn’t exactly the best person to coach attacking talent, has consistently sought to play the enigmatic Frenchman in a midfield two beside anchorman Nemanja Matic, a design that has been shown consistently as faulty and not workable.
Pogba does not have the short passing range and quick intelligence to function as a playmaker a la Mesut Ozil, neither has he shown that he has the tactical nous, intelligence (not to say he is dumb, far from it) and ability to string together offensive moves with his passing from deep midfield that the world’s best registas possess.
He functions best when he has little defensive/playmaking duties and willing runners in front of him which allow him to spray those deadly long-range passes as well as using his long strides and excellent dribbling skills to get into goalscoring positions vacated by the forwards.
This means that for the team’s balance to be right, two extra players have to be deployed in midfield to get the best out of him, something Mourinho has been loath to do.
The role of the playmaker: the visionary number 10 who floats through games making incisive passes and popping up wherever he sees fit is almost going into extinction. What we now have is that the best teams usually field a three-man midfield consisting of three different kinds of players:
i. The Defensive Midfielder (Enforcer): On the field, his job is to stop opposition attacks, intercept passes from midfield to the opposition attack and act as an extra defender if need be. Passing is usually not one of his jobs though it is an added advantage if his passing is at least above average.
It is he who does the donkey work and is expected to be super fit and all about the action. In this category are players like Carlos Casemiro (Real Madrid), Javi Martinez (FC Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (FC Barcelona), Thiago Motta (PSG), Fernandinho (Manchester City).
ii.The Deep-lying Playmaker/Central Midfielder (Regista): One of the most important positions in modern football, the regista (as is known in Italian or meia-armado in Brazil) is the dictator who decides how and at what pace the team attacks.
Expected to be an adept passer of the ball, the regista dictates how possession of the ball is used, the tempo of the attack and the general balance of the team between attacking/defending. Examples at the big European sides currently include Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (FC Barcelona), Marco Veratti (PSG), Ilkay Gundogan/David Silva (Manchester City), Miralem Pjanic (Juventus).
iii. The Box-to-Box Central Midfielder: This is the role that Paul Pogba excelled at while at Juventus where he had the defensive discipline/intelligence of Claudio Marchisio/Arturo Vidal (before Vidal left for Bayern) and the world-class regista abilities of Andrea Pirlo. The presence of these midfielders allowed Pogba to play in his own natural way which helped him in becoming one of the standout players in Serie A.
Simply put, the box-to-box central midfielder is a Jack of all trades as he is expected to do a bit of defending, passing as well as driving forward to support the attack and get a few goals/assists.
The freedom of being able to roam across the midfield means that the box-to-box midfielder usually covers the most distances of the midfield three. Prime examples in world football today are Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Adrien Rabiot (PSG), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Andres Iniesta (FC Barcelona), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus) among Europe’s elite teams.
What this means, in essence, is that Manchester United can currently fill two of the three midfield positions that the big European clubs have, but are missing the all-important regista to dictate play and initiate attacks from deep.
While Ander Herrera has sought to fill this role in certain games, it is not his natural position as the little Spaniard is more adept at getting forward from midfield and being everywhere, just like Pogba. Fielding two box-to-box midfielders would leave just the enforcer i.e. Matic to face the opposition’s midfielders and is a recipe for disaster.
Michael Carrick would have been the perfect choice to fill this key role but injuries coupled with age, a lack of mobility and an absence of trust by the gaffer means that the former Tottenham Hotspur man is not the answer (he retires at the end of the season).
Mourinho, therefore, has chosen to go with the midfield two either in front of a back five (in certain big games) or behind a front four; formations that have yielded mixed results especially as seen over the two games against Tottenham Hotspur this season.
The inability of United’s centre-backs to play out from the back (none is adept at playing out of the back like the Manchester City pair of Aymeric Laporte & John Stones) means Pogba has to stay back and initiate attacks from deep which gives opposition midfielders the time to close him down and ensure that United’s attack is more often than not, slow and ponderous.
This then leads to an overemphasis on long balls to speedy forwards Anthony Martial, Jese Lingard, Marcus Rashford and now Alexis Sanchez, the result of which is that the Red Devils are easily nullified in attack while also being one man light in the middle of the park.
Who the United hierarchy intend to get next season is not yet clear but a regista must be a top priority for the team if it wishes to get the best out of its £89m man.