Will the Frenchman start against Chelsea?
When Manchester United re-signed Paul Pogba from Juventus in 2016, Jose Mourinho said the Frenchman had the potential to become the ‘heart’ of the club.
However, the four years since, as we all know, have been more turbulent. Pogba has not been United’s ‘heart’ but he has often been their enigma.
There have been flashes of brilliance. At times, he has strutted his stuff brilliantly, living up to his tag as one of Europe’s finest midfielders, injecting a verve and swagger not seen at United since Cristiano Ronaldo.
But Pogba has been as frustrating and enigmatic as he has brilliant during his second coming at United.
The 27-year-old has endured his fair share of injury troubles, yes, but even when fit he has spent a surprising chunk of time on the bench.
Which is where he finds himself at the moment. Like his teammates, Pogba was brought to his knees by Tottenham Hotspur three weeks ago as Spurs – managed by old foe Mourinho, of course – ran riot at Old Trafford.
Unlike Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, however, that crushing defeat did not cost them their place.
In the two games since, Pogba has been utilised as an impact sub by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the man widely regarded as the greatest ever in that role.
Pogba has done a pretty good job, too, helping United finish in style against Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain. It was Pogba, of course, who helped create Rashford’s winner in Paris after all.
The problem for Pogba is the pattern. When United come up against a ‘big six’ Premier League side or a European heavyweight away from home, Solskjaer seems to favour playing Fred and Scott McTominay in front of a back three.
And, as The Telegraph’s James Ducker has pointed out (see below), leaving Pogba out of the team produces the desired result for Solskjaer more often than not.
Since PSG win last yr, #MUFC have won 31pc of their ‘big games’ with back 4 vs 50pc with a back 3. When Pogba started, they won one & lost 5 of 8 big games, scoring 8 & shipping 18. Without him starting, they won 8 & drew 2 of 15, scoring 20 & conceding 17 https://t.co/SMPXCddv7S
— James Ducker (@TelegraphDucker) October 23, 2020
Those statistics are certainly damning. When United brought Pogba back from Juventus, they envisaged him as their ultimate big-game player.
Now, though, his role within Solskjaer’s system is difficult to define. His skillset is not best deployed in the holding role, while he will find it difficult usurping Bruno Fernandes as United’s creative lynchpin.
In big games, Pogba’s tendency to dawdle on the ball, switch off and play risky passes makes him a high-risk option for Solskjaer. The PSG game will only have hammered home this point to Solskjaer.
While Pogba was able to exploit the space in PSG’s half created by Thomas Tuchel hooking Idrissa Gueye, Fred and McTominay were better suited to the backs-to-the-wall job in the opening 45.
With Chelsea on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how Solskjaer approaches United’s latest major assignment. One of the key differences is that United are home, suggesting the three-man defence may be ditched for the Norwegian’s favoured 4-3-3.
If so, will Pogba return to the midfield alongside Bruno? Given Chelsea’s quality high up the pitch, it seems doubtful. Solskjaer may well opt to keep Fred and McTominay in there after their big shifts in Paris.
Judging by United’s recent Pogba-less games, that might be the right call.