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Paul Pogba's next transfer decision has to be better than his last – but is there a club that would suit his skillset?

Paul Pogba
(Image credit: PA)

Some companies abound with people with important titles, even though others are unsure precisely what they do. Manchester United may be no exception. The surprise could be that even Paul Pogba places himself in that bracket. He could be called the world’s most expensive footballer after his £89 million return in 2016. He remains United’s record signing. He can accurately be described as a World Cup winner. But, he said in an interview with Le Figaro this week: “At Manchester United do I really have a role? I ask the question but I don't have an answer.”

Perhaps his unofficial duties included those of the scapegoat, at least for Jose Mourinho and Graeme Souness. Pogba’s revelation that he has suffered from depression was a reminder that an exuberant exterior can camouflage other issues. He has been a magnet for criticism and some of it has stretched far beyond fair analysis of his performances. 

If his comments serve as an indictment of United, his statement that the last five trophy-less seasons “have not satisfied me at all,” feel a confirmation that he is off when his contract expires in the summer. That can scarcely be a shock. Yet if free transfers for players of Pogba’s stature tend to be lucrative, the more pertinent element of his decision should be about the role he fills elsewhere.

In a sense, United’s best signing of recent years came at a cost to their biggest buy. Since Bruno Fernandes was installed as the No. 10, Pogba has tended to alternative between the treatment table, the bench, a deeper station in midfield and a position wide on the left. He is not a winger but started the season as such with a flurry of assists.

Put Pogba at the base of a midfield and questions persist about his devotion to his defensive duties. Both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick have reached for the safety blanket of the partnership of Scott McTominay and Fred, rather than trusting Pogba to shield a porous defence regularly. He has been both superstar and squad player.

It may not reflect well on Pogba that, at 29, there remains a debate about his best position. It suggests he could retire at 35 or 36 still an enigma, still threatening to realise his potential but not actually doing it. But it is also a sign that his attributes seemingly equip him for many a part. The challenge for managers is to find a combination that suits him, where he has some freedom and cover to let him create and roam.

Two have done that rather better than anyone at Old Trafford. Pogba mentioned Didier Deschamps; perhaps unsurprisingly given he became a World Cup final scorer under his compatriot. But if 4-2-3-1 does not always seem to suit Pogba, it was a system with a difference in the 2018 World Cup: partly because N’Golo Kante can famously do the work of two men, partly because Blaise Matuidi could tuck in from the left when Pogba went forward.

Antonio Conte, meanwhile, managed to liberate Pogba on the left of a midfield three, often in a 3-5-2 formation, though it is a role he also played in 4-3-3 and 4-diamond-2 shapes for Juventus. It enabled him to be scorer, passer, runner and central midfielder with a better blend than he has been in Manchester.

It means Pogba’s next decision should be about finding a club with a plan for him. Among his various suitors, that may count against Paris Saint-Germain, who are better at signing stars than formulating tactical blueprints to get the best from them and who need their midfielders to compensate for their forwards’ lack of work off the ball. 

Perhaps it could be an argument in favour of Real Madrid, and not merely because of Carlo Ancelotti’s skilful man-management. It is possible to envisage a 4-3-3 next season, with Kylian Mbappe and Vinicius Junior flanking Karim Benzema in attack, while Pogba and Luka Modric benefit from Casemiro’s skills as the destroyer in midfield. 

There would certainly be intrigue in the sight of him at Barcelona; Xavi was a byword for tiki-taka and Pogba represents a very different type of midfielder. A return to Juventus, and his former manager Massimiliano Allegri, could provide a reunion with strategic logic.  

But Pogba’s next decision in the transfer market needs to be better than his last. Joining United made his agent Mino Raiola a fortune. The questions they need to ask about his next move ought to revolve less around money than midfields and how to build one around him.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.