Juve's Paul Pogba pressing his claim as the best box-to-box midfielder around
Massimiliano Allegri made no secret of his desire to recruit a new No. 10 for Juventus this summer. The shirt had been vacated by Carlos Tevez, but the manager's request to the club board had more to do with the departure of Arturo Vidal. It was the Chilean who performed the duties that we most often associate with a No. 10, acting as the link between midfield and attack in Allegri's 4-3-1-2.
Julian Draxler and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were each sought, but the former chose Wolfsburg and the latter stayed at Borussia Dortmund. As Juventus ran out of time and options, another alternative was put forward. Paul Pogba had requested the No. 10 shirt, so why not try him in that role? On the surface, he might have seemed a natural fit. Pogba already scored more goals than the average midfielder, with 15 in his previous two Serie A campaigns. And he had provided ample evidence of his ability to unpick a defence, from the devious side-of-the-heel pass to wrong-foot Genoa's defenders last March to the swivel-and-chip to release Tevez at San Siro six months later.
Allegri experimented with the idea in preseason, deploying Pogba at No. 10 for a friendly against Lechia Gdansk. Juventus won 2-1, and the player told reporters afterward that he had "found himself comfortable behind the two strikers." And yet when pressed on whether this might be a role that he wanted to make his own in future, he replied that "I just like to play."
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
It was an exchange that hinted at something fundamental in Pogba's character: an underlying unselfishness, a willingness to put himself at the service of the team. As pleasing as such traits might be to a manager, there was a question here as to whether such a gifted player should really be adapting himself to fit a particular scheme, rather than the other way around.
"Paul is different to all the others I have had as clients," said Pogba's agent, Mino Raiola. "He would never allow himself to tell his manager 'play me here' or 'put me there.' He needs to get better at that. At a certain point, a great player needs to start saying what they want to do."
Allegri, by contrast, has never been shy of his convictions. He quickly concluded he did not like Pogba behind the attack and drew him back into midfield, abandoning the use of a No. 10 altogether and reverting to the 3-5-2 he had inherited when he first took the Juventus job after Antonio Conte. For the first few games of the new Serie A season, Pogba struggled badly. It was mooted that the burden of leading the midfield was too great for him now that both Vidal and Andrea Pirlo had departed. More than that, though, he looked like a player who did not understand his role in the team.
In the absence of a No. 10, was Pogba still supposed to carry the ball forward from midfield or did Allegri intend him to be a deep-lying playmaker? A study of the heat maps from these games show he was roaming all over the pitch. Watching Juventus live, it was apparent that he was failing to impose himself anywhere.
After Pogba was left out of the starting XI for the 1-1 draw with Chievo in September, Alessandro Del Piero posited that the No. 10 shirt was resting heavy on the Frenchman's shoulders. "The choice of number has not helped him," he said. "It weighed on me the first few years." That theory gained credence after Pogba was seen to have scrawled a "+5" on his shirt during a game against Atalanta. It was initially reported as a tribute to Pele, who had celebrated his 75th birthday in the same week (from a certain angle, the '+' sign did look more like a '7'), but such interpretations were undermined as Pogba persisted in marking his shirt the same way for several more games thereafter.
Gazzetta dello Sport asserted that Pogba's real intention had been to change his shirt back to the No. 6 he had worn throughout his career, since 1 + 0 + 5 = 6. He had been seeing Alberto Ferrarini, a mental coach who previously worked with Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci. It was said that Ferrarini had devised this ruse to help Pogba get back to his old self.
That remains a matter of speculation. Asked about the meaning of the scrawl by Juventus's in-house TV channel, Pogba himself replied: "It's only a +5, nothing more." What we do know is that Pogba's form has improved dramatically since that slow start. And a more tangible explanation lies with Juventus's shift toward using a 4-3-3 formation, alternated with the old 4-3-1-2, a system made viable again by Hernanes's signing on the final day of the transfer window.
In either set-up, Pogba's role is clearly defined. Playing on the left of the midfield trio, he serves as what is known in Italy as a "mezz'ala" -- literally, a "half-wing". His task is no longer to roam all over the pitch but instead work in tandem with the full-back to dominate his flank, dropping back when required and marauding forward when the opportunity presents. It is a position that makes the most of his talents. The truth is that Pogba has never been a No. 10 any more than he is a "regista" to place in front of the defence, even if he does possess the technique and athleticism to adapt himself to either role. At his core, he is a box-to-box midfielder, a "trascinatore" as Lilian Thuram recently defined him: someone who can drag his whole team up and down the pitch.
There might not be another player in the world right now who does it better. Another former Juventus player, Patrick Vieira, was once considered the model for all box-to-box midfielders to follow but even he believes that he has now been surpassed. "Physically, we have the same game in terms of style and position," said Vieira this summer. "But [Pogba] is much more gifted on the ball than I was and he will also score a lot more goals than me."
Still working for Manchester City at the time, Vieira was not the only person at the club to hold Pogba in high regard. The Premier League side made enquiries as to the player's availability, only to discover that he was no more eager to move than Juventus were to sell. When the two teams were later drawn together in the Champions League group stage, City manager Manuel Pellegrini insisted he already owned a superior box-to-box player of his own. "I don't think it's fair to compare a young player who is just starting with Yaya Touré who has had a brilliant career. ... [Pogba] can improve, he has many margins and areas for improvement."
That may be so, but over the course of their two matches it was Touré who would not be flattered by the comparison. Pogba played a decisive role in both, setting up Mario Mandzukic's equaliser in a 2-1 win at the Etihad before feeding teammate Alex Sandro on what became an assist to the Croatian striker for the winning goal in the return match.
These moments were hardly the sum of his contribution, either. Pogba had been at the heart of the action throughout in Manchester, whether that meant stealing the ball away from Samir Nasri on the edge of his own area or having a goal disallowed at the far end. Likewise, his performance in Turin was packed with little moments of genius, such as a backheeled through-ball to Paulo Dybala who regrettably had strayed offside.
If we were to be critical, we might say Pogba has not delivered to this same standard in every game. But since the formation switch, his performances have been positive more often than not. How many players in a squad of Juventus' standard could lead their team in both shots and successful dribbles per game, and yet still have matches (such as the recent derby against Torino) in which they win possession back from the opposition more than any other teammate as well?
The emergence of Sandro, explosive and attack-minded enough to get forward from left-back in a way that Patrice Evra cannot at this point in his career, promises even better things ahead for the Bianconeri. If Allegri can persuade Pogba to trade a few more of those shots he is taking into lay-offs for his new teammate, they will not be easy to contain.
France, too, will watch with great interest ahead of Euro 2016. Didier Deschamps has run into some of the same challenges as Allegri in working out how to get the best from the player, but professed recently to "know full well that [Pogba] is not a No.10."
If nothing else, the France manager seems to be on the right track. And so is Pogba as he presses his claim to being the best box-to-box midfielder on the planet.
Paolo Bandini is a writer and broadcaster who contributes to ESPN FC, The Guardian and The Score, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.