Manchester United lost the Europa League final in heartbreaking fashion after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out in Gdansk, leaving fans wondering ‘what if?’ after another missed opportunity to lift some silverware.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted to change things around for the final and play Paul Pogba in a new deeper role, employing the Frenchman in a number six role alongside Scott McTominay – a role the midfielder shone in and thrived with his new-found defensive responsibility.
The game concluded with a thrilling penalty shootout after a nail-biting 120 minutes ended without either side finding the deadlock.
Pogba enjoyed a fairly comfortable performance despite producing any ‘highlight’ moments, as he helped to pull the strings going forward while remaining disciplined in his defensive work and acting as a solid rock in front of the back four – which was weakened by the absence of Harry Maguire.
United went on to lose the game on penalties after an equaliser from Edinson Cavani cancelled out Gerard Moreno’s opener, while Pogba may well question whether he could have done more going forward during his time on the pitch.
However, his defensive work was what he was put into that position to provide, and few could argue he neglected doing the dirty work, something he’s often been accused of in the past.
Usually when the term ‘a game of two halves’ is used, it is done so in reference to a team performance, but it would be easy to say the same about Pogba’s individual output.
During the second 45, McTominay seemed to be the one with freedom to roam forwards and join the attack, and as a result Pogba’s performance was quieter.
It was almost as if he decided he had gone forwards too much in the opening half and was now deciding to switch things around and play as a traditional holding midfielder.
Mirror Football has taken a look at Pogba’s performance in Gdansk.
Doing what he was asked
Speaking prior to kick-off, Solskjaer said: “I think we do it in our own way. In our spirit, it’s attacking football, pace of course and power and that quality,” and Pogba certainly delivered in that sense, as he was a constant attacking threat from deep.
Pogba’s positioning was sublime from the moment the match started in Gdansk, and it was clear he was enjoying the freedom the role afforded him.
The midfielder lined up for kick-off noticeably ahead of McTominay, a clear indication that of the two, he would be the one to press forward and join the attack whenever possible.
But that doesn’t take anything away from his defensive contributions, as he was frequently throwing himself in the way of the ball to thwart any Villareal attacks.
The absence of Maguire was clearly felt by United, and Pogba wasn’t afraid to drop back and help out behind him.
His passing was also strong, but at times he was let down by his own lack of attacking risk-taking, and he was utilised effectively in picking the ball up from deep and moving the ball up field.
Impact on Fernandes
Despite Pogba having a good game, his role in the side seemed to limit the output of Fernandes, not least due to their often sharing the same position on the pitch.
The Portuguese started in his usual number ten position and was captain, but was far too often choosing to come deep to get the ball from the centre-backs or full-backs, something he often does when Fred and McTominay are playing as the two holding midfielders.
However, with Pogba playing in a double-pivot, there was no need for Fernandes to drop as deep as he did, therefore limiting United’s attacking firepower by moving to play as a third defensive midfielder at times before pinging long balls up the pitch.
During the first-half of the game, Pogba made ten passes into the final third. His impact compared to Fernandes’ is exhibited by the fact the Portuguese had just three.
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With ten minutes gone in extra time, Solskjaer made his first change of the night by bringing Fred on for Mason Greenwood, with the Brazilian immediately slotting in alongside McTominay.
That move pushed Pogba forwards into a more advanced role, giving him the freedom to join the attack while freeing him from his defensive shackles.
No longer did he have to worry as much about who was behind him, and the fact Solskjaer took off Greenwood – United’s best player of the game at that point – shows the faith the manager has in his number six.
However, instead of playing as a traditional left winger, Pogba seemed to play as more of an inside attacker and played closer to Cavani than he did to the left touchline.
That use of space freed up Luke Shaw to get forward and join the attack without having to overlap.
Speaking before the match, Paul Scholes warned Pogba he needed to be disciplined in his play and had to replicate the role he adopts for France.
When away with the national side, Pogba usually plays deeper than he does for his club, and can sometimes act as a box-to-box midfielder, a role he shone in on Wednesday.
Scholes said: “Pogba has to be very disciplined in that role – almost the role he plays for France – can he do that? We’ll have to wait and see.”
And Pogba certainly proved himself to the former midfielder, as he continuously dropped deep and timed his tackles to perfection.
There were rarely opportunities for Villareal to get players in behind him, though he definitely made more effort to get forward in the first half than in the second, and it could be argued that United’s offensive output differed as Pogba changed his approach.
Pogba spoke before the game about wanting to try and win the Premier League title with United, giving the impression he plans to continue his stay at Old Trafford.
The midfielder is out of contract in a year’s time, but his performance against Villareal will have fans eager for him to sign an extension.
Pogba’s versatility is one of his key strengths, as he could be United’s best player in two or three different positions.
He proved on Wednesday that he can play as a number six, but has already proved himself as a number eight or on the left wing.
But will he be happy continuing to rotate positions? Before the match he rejected suggestions he’d be happier holding down one regular slot in the side.
It’s often been speculated that Pogba would shine in a central playmaking role, but it’s unlikely he’ll never oust Fernandes for what could be his favourite position.
Time will tell whether he decides to stick the course at Old Trafford knowing he may always be used to plug a gap rather than be the central figure.