When Paul Pogba joined Juventus from Manchester United on a free transfer during the summer of 2012, hardly anyone could’ve imagined him going on to be on of the most expensive sales in football history only a few years later.
Perhaps it was the perfect storm. The young Pogba joined the Bianconeri with hardly any pressure. Juventus were the Scudetto favorites and would go on to being wildly successful under Antonio Conte in his revolutionary 3-5-2 formation. Not much was expected of the Frenchman right away and it allowed him to develop and adapt to the Italian game in relative comfort under the tutelage of Antonio Conte.
The system Juve played really catered to Pogba as well - he didn’t have nearly as many defensive responsibilities as he now does under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United in the 4-2-3-1, where he has been deployed as one of the two holding midfielders. Starting so deep in possession limits what Pogba does best on the ball and doesn’t render him as effective. He isn’t as known for his long distance passing or defensive abilities, so he doesn’t really qualify as a “regista” or a true defensive holding midfielder in Mourinho’s lineup. United have capable midfielders like Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, but none like an Andrea Pirlo that can take the pressure of creation away from the others surrounding him. With all this being said, Paul Pogba isn’t a trequartista either.
It’s no surprise that his best seasons would come when he was utilized as a mezz’ala (the Italian term used for one of the side players in a midfield three), this allowed Pogba to venture forward freely, often going for audacious chances from well outside the box and marveling the Juventus Stadium crowd with his dazzling displays of technique. Pogba’s physique, height and incredibly athleticism also meant that he’d be a danger any time he made the second wave of runs into the box whenever a cross was played in, as he’d often win aerial duels.
Pogba was a luxury midfielder with little pressure on his back in the first years with La Vecchia Signora. He was part of a rotation in the center of the park that included stars such as Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio. Pirlo would often be the deepest of the midfielders, sitting just ahead of the defensive trio. Either Vidal or Marchisio would do the box-to-box duties, while Pogba would often join the attack, combining with the attacking duo and being at his very best when he received the ball just outside the box.
It’s this very difference in positioning that explains some of his struggles now with United compared to the role he played under Antonio Conte at Juventus. Apart from his positioning on the pitch, there have been hints throughout his career that Pogba can succumb to the pressure around him. Remember when he had to write a +5 next to his no.10 with a sharpie? When things aren’t going well, or when the pressure of his kit number or price tag get to him, is when we need to see the inner strength and maturation from Pogba to overcome these mental hurdles.
Antonio Conte did well to always demand more from Paul Pogba, even after positive displays. He was cautiously optimistic, reserving praise on many occasions when everyone else was fawning over the young starlet. With his handling of Pogba, he allowed the midfielder to become one of the most prized assets in world football, ultimately commanding a €105m price tag from Manchester United.