Cristiano Ronaldo’s Old Trafford walk-off dominated the headlines in the wake of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Everton but he was not the only high-profile player to be benched.
Paul Pogba also dropped out of the team having struggled in midfield during United’s dramatic 2-1 victory over Villarreal in the Champions League a few days earlier.
Pogba started the season superbly, racking up seven assists in his first four Premier League appearances – one more than he managed in the previous two campaigns combined.
But there remains a familiar sense of uncertainty over his role in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. Consistency, in terms of where he lines up, is still lacking. So far this season, he has split his time between central midfield and the left-hand side of their attack.
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It was from the left that he produced his best display of the campaign, when he provided four assists in the 5-1 thrashing of Leeds. “We just gave him the freedom of roaming wherever he wanted to go and getting on the ball,” said Solskjaer afterwards.
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Pogba certainly enjoys that kind of freedom – “I just like to be free; free to play my football,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports in April – but it is not always possible for Solskjaer to give it to him.
On those occasions, it becomes more difficult for Solskjaer to get the best out of Pogba – especially as the Frenchman is one of numerous players now vying for that spot on the left.
The £73m Jadon Sancho gives Solskjaer a new option there, while Marcus Rashford’s impending return from injury – to a squad which now includes Ronaldo as well as Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani – will only intensify the competition.
Pogba is of course most comfortable in the centre of the pitch but only when the circumstances are right. At United, Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 formation demands defensive discipline from the midfield pair behind Bruno Fernandes and that is not Pogba’s strong point.
Pogba is not helped by United’s glaring lack of elite quality in that area of the pitch. The club spent heavily in the summer transfer market, adding Ronaldo and Sancho to their attack and Raphael Varane to their defence, but they remain light in midfield.
Pogba cannot rely on Fred, Nemanja Matic or even the improving Scott McTominay to shoulder the defensive burden behind him and that in turn limits his attacking freedom when he plays there.
It is for that reason that Solskjear often prefers to pair the more defensively-minded Fred and McTominay behind Fernandes but the international break is just the latest reminder of how the circumstances differ for Pogba with France.
Under Didier Deschamps, Pogba has stability he doesn’t get at club level. The France manager changes between systems but Pogba consistently plays as a right-sided central midfielder.
And crucially, he is always given the freedom he craves.
“He has a fairly free role,” explained Deschamps during Euro 2020. “He is not limited on the offensive aspect. His position can change. It depends on the placement and movement of other players.”
Pogba’s attacking licence allows him to thrive with France and it can be seen in his passing directions. At international level, he is encouraged to do what he does best, and therefore directs a higher percentage of his passes forward than he does at United.
Pogba is able to dovetail with France’s forwards knowing he is well covered defensively and that’s down to N’Golo Kante, whose tireless energy and defensive awareness ensure the side are rarely left exposed when Pogba roams forward.
Pogba loves playing with the Chelsea midfielder. The pair started six of France’s seven games together during their triumphant World Cup 2018 campaign and Pogba even backed his midfield partner to win the Ballon d’Or ahead of the Euros this summer.
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United do not have anyone close to Kante’s level in their midfield and Pogba will have to cope without him when France face Belgium in Thursday’s UEFA Nations League semi-final too.
Kante’s absence with Covid is an undoubted blow to France – and to Pogba in particular. Indeed, Kante was also unavailable for France’s World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Finland last month, with Deschamps’ side only winning one of the three games and drawing the other two.
Paul Pogba pictured with Chelsea's N'Golo Kante last season
It will be interesting to see how Pogba fares without his preferred partner against a top opponent in Belgium on Thursday.
Aurelien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot are the likely candidates to join him in midfield in Kante’s absence but just as it so often is at United, the pressure will be on Pogba to step up. France give him stability but can he shine without Kante alongside him?
Watch Belgium vs France in the UEFA Nations League semi-final live on Sky Sports Football from 7.30pm on Thursday; kick-off 7.45pm
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