It's four weeks since Paul Pogba made his debut for Manchester United – a marauding, hugely influential performance that guided Jose Mourinho's men to a 2-0 home win over Southampton. United had started the season with a 100 per cent record, and their £89m record signing looked to be up and running.
Gradually though, things have started to unravel, both individually for Pogba, and collectively for Mourinho's United. “I don’t know what position he played,” Mourinho joked after Pogba's debut display. “We have to build a certain organisation around him, but he has to play free.”
Since then, Pogba's wandering role has continued to puzzle, and yet the Frenchman no longer looks like he's playing with freedom either – or confidence for that matter.
In that debut game against Southampton, Pogba received 72 passes, and completed 60 of the 72 he attempted himself. He had four shots in that match, created two chance and made 14 ball recoveries. Against Manchester City, those figures were down to 39 passes received, 35 completed from 45 attempts, one shot, one chance created and eight ball recoveries.
True, Manchester United had less possession in total, completing 284 passes compared to 340 against Southampton. But that was down 16%, while Pogba's own passing contribution was down 42%.
At Watford, United completed 345 passes – more than they managed against Southampton. But Pogba mustered just 47 passes, misplacing a worrying 16. He received 60 passes, recovered possession only six times and created no chances, although he did have two shots and was unlucky not to score with a brilliant 25-yard effort that came off the crossbar. It was a flash of genius that showed what he is capable of, but for the rest of the match he was far too quiet for United's liking.
Different position, same issues
Pogba has largely played alongside Marouane Fellaini in a 4-2-3-1 since returning to the club, but he started in a slightly more advanced role against Watford. Mourinho opted for a 4-3-3, with Fellaini sitting on his own and Pogba alongside Wayne Rooney in an attacking midfield position.
It was designed to help Pogba become more influential – he sometimes struggled as part of a two in holding midfield for France at Euro 2016, but flourished in a midfield three at Juventus. It didn't really work though. Pogba had marginally more influence, completing 27 passes in the first half compared to 20 in the second half – but still not enough.
The change also had the negative effect of forcing Rooney to play a more withdrawn role – the very one Mourinho previously said he wouldn't give his skipper, having insisted that the 30-year-old is not a No.8. Rooney was ineffective and Mourinho switched things back around for the second half at Vicarage Road, returning to a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba deeper alongside Fellaini.
Pogba used his strength several times against Watford, holding off opponents in impressive fashion to start moves, but in both halves there wasn't enough sign of the mobility he clearly possesses. He didn't get forward anywhere near as often as he did on his debut against Southampton, completing only 10 passes in the final third compared to 17 against Saints – and the diagrams below show that most of those 17 were in far more advanced, dangerous areas.
Dribbling skills have gone missing
Paul Scholes gave his thoughts on Pogba's struggles before this game, having seen the midfielder toil in a Europa League defeat at Feyenoord. Scholes is very much the people's curmudgeon – far from the world's most cheery man, but most of what he says United fans tend to agree with. His criticism of Louis van Gaal last season received widespread support from the Old Trafford fanbase.
"He's trying to beat three or four players, he's running with the ball," was Scholes's assessment. "He should keep it simple for now. That’s not the player Manchester United bought. They didn't buy a Messi to go and beat five players and stick it in the top corner all the time."
Whether because of Scholes's words or via sheer coincidence, Pogba hardly ran with the ball at all against Watford – he didn't attempt a single take-on all game. Even against Manchester City he completed five take-ons; against Southampton he attempted 14, completing nine.
Zlatan isn't benefiting from Pogba presence
"If he just plays one-two touch, sticks the ball into Zlatan and runs, nobody can live with that," Scholes added.
Pogba did actually find Ibrahimovic with 10 passes at Vicarage Road – he passed the ball to the striker only three times against Southampton. But only one of those found Ibrahimovic in the final third, the same as against Saints, so while he seemed to focus more on finding the Swede, the benefit wasn't huge and running with the ball actually might have done more damage – as it did on his debut.
The service Ibrahimovic received in general was poor – he received 26 passes against Watford but only four in the final third. From one of those he set up United's goal and, considering his lack of service, the five shots he got in during the game was a decent tally – although there was one occasion when he should have scored in the first half.
Fellaini may not be perfect partner, but he justified place
Scholes's suggested solution is to pair Pogba with Michael Carrick in holding midfield, rather than Marouane Fellaini. It's an interesting conundrum, given that Mourinho does need to get more out of Pogba, but Fellaini was arguably United's best player against Watford.
The Belgian completed 65 passes – 18 more than Pogba, and anyone else on the field for that matter. Even more impressively, he gave the ball only twice.
True, Fellaini often opted for a simpler pass than Pogba, who gave the ball away 16 times – 13 of them while attempting to move it forward. But the former Everton man generally held the fort well for United, making 16 ball recoveries, seven more than anyone else. He also completed seven headed clearances, the highest tally of the match.