It was hard not to feel a little sorry for Paul Pogba during his first season back at Manchester United. Handed the unenviable crown as the world’s most-expensive footballer, the Frenchman’s transition was hardly helped by the fact he so rarely got the opportunity to play in his favourite role.
But the news that Nemanja Matic is on the verge of completing a £40 million transfer from Chelsea will be music to Pogba’s ears, with Jose Mourinho finally having found the key to balancing his midfield and allowing the former Juventus man to play from his natural position on the left of the central three.
For much of the 2016-17 season, Pogba found himself asked to play a role as one of the two men at the base of midfield, or he started from the No.10 position higher up the pitch. It was a frustration to some onlookers that in neither role was he able to dominate the game as he had been perceived to have done for Juventus before his £89.5m move.
With Matic’s imminent arrival comes the chance for Mourinho to finally use Pogba as part of a trio in midfield. United did increasingly use the 4-3-3 formation towards the end of last term, but that was regularly for the sake of getting Marouane Fellaini into the starting XI at a time when the Europa League quest had become their one and only focus.
On the odd occasion when Pogba played in the midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera, Carrick’s lack of mobility resulted in a curtailed attacking stint from Herrera, which in turn reduced Pogba’s effectiveness as opponents had fewer serious threats to deal with from midfield outside of the Frenchman.
Pogba delivered barnstorming runs into space time and again for Juventus when Andrea Pirlo was trusted to keep things ticking over at the base of the midfield, while Arturo Vidal added the tiger-like approach on the right of the three. But at United that kind of form has been difficult to reproduce.
Matic will change all that. His intelligence at the base of midfield will allow Herrera to play a more advanced role to his right and Pogba greater freedom to his left. In terms of a replacement for Carrick in the first XI, Mourinho could barely have picked a better man. Matic can physically dominate in a way Carrick has been less able to do in his advancing years while also providing the passing ability and tactical discipline.
It was under the Portuguese that the 28-year-old delivered arguably his best string of performances as a Chelsea player when the Blues stormed to the Premier League title in 2014-15, and a repeat of such form could well go a long way to giving United a greater interest in the same race this season.
The Serb is more than aware of what his role is, and as the clear first choice to start from the anchor role in midfield there will be no doubt over his manager’s faith in him to do his job. Last season’s arrival of N’Golo Kante at Chelsea might have been identified by many as the key to Antonio Conte’s side winning the league, but for Matic it meant a role higher up the field.
“I am not a goal machine, I just try to do my best,” he said after netting against Middlesbrough in May from his altered role. “I know my position is defensive midfielder but if I have the opportunities to score a goal of course I will try to score.”
At United he will get to play his best position once more, and the same will now go for Pogba. Many put the side’s lack of goals last term down to the inability of their strikers to convert chances. But while that was partly true, the midfield’s failure to stretch opponents and provide a better quality of opportunities with regularity also played a part.
There should be no such shortcomings now. Matic ought to give Herrera and Pogba all the licence necessary to make United’s midfield a more complete proposition, and that can only be good news for the rest of the team.