Paul Pogba has been on good form at the World Cup, often providing excellent pin-point passes for the French forwards, and combining especially well with Kylian Mbappe. His performances have left many questioning why he has failed to play this well for Manchester United in the Premier League, as he hasn’t quite managed to consistently perform at the top of his game in England. Given the disciplined and defensive style of Jose Mourinho, could it be that United’s manager has not allowed Pogba to play his natural game, but has instead tried to fit the Frenchman into a system that does not suit him?
Discipline and stability are always at the heart of Mourinho’s teams, and Pogba’s nonchalance and flair does not exactly compliment the preferences of his manager. If Mourinho is trying to change Pogba’s game and fit him into his system, then it would not be the first time that he has attempted this.
During his first spell at Chelsea, Mourinho famously altered the playing style of English attacker Joe Cole. Cole was a young and exciting attacker who likewise didn’t fit into Mourinho’s playing style, so he turned him into a much more disciplined player. In his book The Mixer, football journalist Michael Cox describes Mourinho as having turned Cole “from a box of tricks into a streamlined, purposeful wide midfielder” and later adding in that “some despaired at Cole’s transformation from a playmaker to a defensive-minded workhorse”. Moreover, Mourinho already appears to have altered the playing style of Ander Herrera in the United midfield. Once a more forward thinking and creative central midfielder, Herrera seemed to have lost some of his creativity and attacking instinct last season, after playing in a much deeper and more defensive role during the 2016/17 season. It would therefore not be surprising if Mourinho is trying to turn Pogba into something he is not, and simultaneously limiting his ability to display his skill and creativity.
Pogba looked at his best during his time at Juventus, where he played alongside disciplined midfielders such as Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, in addition to having incredibly solid defenders such as Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli behind him, who often played in a back five. This provided a lot of defensive stability, allowing Pogba to play a more roaming role and push forward at will.
Similarly, for France, Pogba has played alongside the incredibly hardworking defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante, and the similarly tireless Blaise Matuidi, again giving Pogba more freedom. Although it must be said that Pogba has not exactly played a roaming role for France, and has also competently tracked back. Perhaps the key to his improved performances for France has been the runs made by the French forwards, and those made by Kylian Mbappe in particular, which have allowed Pogba to play his trademark lofted through-balls. It is difficult to say whether Mourinho is the reason why Pogba has made fewer of those eye-catching passes for United, as he could be discouraging the forwards from making constant runs, or encouraging Pogba to play safer passes. However, Mourinho’s preference for counter attacks would suggest that he would like the forwards to make early runs, so the blame cannot necessarily be put on Mourinho.
Mourinho certainly has not built the team around Pogba in the way that it arguably was built around him at Juventus, and it may well be that the Frenchman hasn’t been able to perform at his best for United because he is not being allowed to play his natural game. Therefore, Mourinho’s decision to prioritise his own playing style over that of United’s record signing could be what is holding Pogba back in Manchester.