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Why is Pogba better for France than Man Utd?

08:00 BST 28/06/2021
Paul Pogba France Manchester United GFX
The midfielder has been in superb form for Les Bleus during the early stages of Euro 2020 - so why can't he produce the same displays at Old Trafford?

Just 20 minutes into France’s Euro 2020 opener against Germany, and the usual Paul Pogba debate had resurfaced once more. 

The Manchester United midfielder had just played an exquisite ball with the outside of his foot to find Lucas Hernandez on the left-hand side of the Germany box before the Bayern Munich defender's cross was turned into his own goal by Mats Hummels for what proved to be the only goal of the game. 

That may have been enough for Pogba to claim the unofficial honour for 'Pass of the Tournament', and yet against Portugal on Wednesday, he looked in the mood to surpass himself in that regard.

His defence-splitting ball to find Karim Benzema for France's second goal in their 2-2 draw at the Puskas Arena was a thing of beauty, and only underlined the confidence he is playing with at this tournament.  

In this form, Pogba is a pleasure to watch, and despite Benzema picking up the Man of the Match award during a dramatic round of games in Group F, it was the man who supplied the assist for his second-half strike who really ran the show. 

Pogba's statistics made for incredible reading, with his 99 passes (of which he completed 97 per cent of them) the most of anyone on the pitch. Renato Sanches (72) was the only midfielder on the pitch to get close to the same number of passes.

In total, Pogba had 104 touches, the most of any player on the pitch, made three key passes, laid on one assist and had one shot on target, which Rui Patricio did superbly to tip onto the post.

And he managed all that while playing in a deeper midfield role that is not necessarily his favourite.

“He’s making a big impression,” Jules Kounde, the Sevilla and France defender, said last week. “Once again, he was amazing with a great, decisive pass to Karim for his goal.

"We know the quality he has as a player and it’s great to see him performing like this. He’s very important for us.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must have been watching on with delight at the midfielder’s display. The Norwegian knows that if United's record signing could produce that sort of quality for the Red Devils each week, then there would be no doubting their credentials as title challengers going forward.

But therein lies the problem. Pogba just cannot seem to be able to reach that level on a consistent basis at Old Trafford.

But why?

The man himself was asked that question just last week, and pointed towards the way Didier Deschamps sets France up as being beneficial. 

“We were already playing with three midfielders [at Juventus], in 5-3-2," he told L’Equipe . “I had the freedom, I had to be in the box, to attack. It was an obligation. In Manchester, I have the freedom to enter the box, but the priority is to play and to defend.

"We (France) play in 4-2-3-1, also a diamond. I am a little more in the transmission, in the construction. But I have more freedom than in Manchester to enter the box, to make runs forwards.

“At the same time, when you have [Antoine] Griezmann and Kylian [Mbappe], you don’t want to enter their spaces, you don’t need to.”

That has been a common theme when dissecting his performances at United, with many arguing he is played too deep by Solskjaer.

It is in that holding midfield role, however, where he started against Portugal and he excelled, albeit with more licence to roam.

“Paul is a complete midfielder,” Deschamps told reporters ahead of Monday's meeting with Switzerland in the last 16 at Euro 2020. “He has that quality of passing, it's part of his game.

"You have to have the right movement. He has a fairly free role. He is not limited on the offensive aspect, his position can change, it depends on the placement and movement of other players.”

There have been a handful of occasions where he has impressed in a similar position for United, but that is the problem - no consistency. 

Against Burnley at Turf Moor in January, he played as one of two holding midfielders alongside Nemanja Matic and recorded similar statistics to those we saw against Portugal on Wednesday. But, those dominant displays are too few and far between. 

One of the key differences for the national team has to be his team-mates.

Scott McTominay has improved vastly since his promotion to the first team under Jose Mourinho, as has Fred, while Nemanja Matic is solid. But, none of them are on the same level as N’Golo Kante. 

The Chelsea midfielder is one of the best, if not the best, in his position in the world, and the security he provides gives Pogba the freedom he so covets as he aims to dictate games from midfield.

Some of Pogba's best performances for United last season, meanwhile, came when he started further forward and was deployed on the left-hand side of either midfield or attack.

Solskjaer knows that the ex-Juventus man prefers playing further up the pitch, but allowing Pogba to do so does not always fit with his preferred system. 

A further reason for Pogba's improved showings for France is that there is less pressure on him when he pulls on his national team shirt.

He is one of the key leaders within the dressing room, but knows there are others around him capable of providing magic moments if he is not at the top of his game.

As such, he cuts an especially relaxed figure while away with France. For over 30 minutes during training at the Hidegkuti Nandor Stadium last week, Pogba held court with Benzema, Mbappe and Presnel Kimpembe in a shady area of the pitch, as he clearly enjoys the leadership role he has within the squad.

"I like to talk one-on-one with the boys," he said. "I like saying to the guys 'how are you feeling? If you don't think we should do it like this, let me know...'

I try to make [my team-mates] feel at ease so we can be better on the pitch. I want to get the best out of everyone.

So whether it be the system, personnel, tactics or responsibility that makes Pogba tick for France, one thing is for certain among Manchester United staff and supporters: the Euro 2020 version of Pogba must be the one that turns up at Old Trafford for the start of the new season.