Go back seven months to the last Manchester derby and Manchester United ruined Manchester City’s coronation. Pep Guardiola’s side were 2-0 up at half-time, set to be crowned champions in front of their neighbours. What followed was irrelevant in one respect – they clinched the Premier League title the following weekend – but not in others. If it spared United the ignominy of seeing City celebrate and got Jose Mourinho a rare win over Guardiola, it also showed Paul Pogba’s catalytic impact.
The Frenchman scored twice in United’s comeback that day. If his performances this season have attracted decidedly mixed reviews, the numbers offer another picture. Pogba ranks second in Twelve’s Premier League leader board for the season, behind only Leicester’s Harry Maguire.
Examine the different coloured bars and it shows how his contribution stretches across the pitch, underlying his abilities as a box-to-box midfielder. It suggests he is the best all-round player in the division (at least while City’s Kevin de Bruyne is injured). If he does not have as many attacking points as City’s David Silva, he has delivered more in defence and off the ball.
A map of Pogba’s important actions illustrates that. In part, it shows his ability to head the ball away in his own box, although Mourinho’s decision to make him pivotal in his penalty area backfired when he lost Antonio Rudiger and the German scored for Chelsea against United.
But it is also notable that much of Pogba’s defensive work is done in the opposition’s half. Given United’s difficulties playing traditional Mourinho football – cautious, counter-attacking, with a low block – it will be instructive if he deploys a gameplan that utilises Pogba’s ability to win the ball back higher up the field.
Pogba averages the most shots per game of any central midfielder (3.3, according to WhoScored); he also plays more key passes and dribbles more than most. It all suggests he is at his best in a midfield trio where he has more licence to go forward. As his map indicates, he is often at his most productive in the inside-left channel.
All of which could prompt Guardiola to borrow from the blueprint he used when City got a 0-0 draw at Anfield. Perhaps scarred by Liverpool’s success in that zone last season, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did especially well against City, he altered his usual 4-3-3 by using Bernardo Silva in a withdrawn role, forming a double pivot with Fernandinho.
The Portuguese excelled in a mature display. A glance at his pitch map that day shows that all of his key actions took place in his own half whereas, over the season as a whole, he has tended to flourish further up the pitch, as the other diagram shows. If he operates in a deeper role, it will be a sign Guardiola is wary of Pogba and is willing to sacrifice Bernardo Silva and perhaps only attack with four players.
One feature of City’s start is that, while they have met three of the ‘big six’, all those games were away from home. It does not necessarily mean that Guardiola will adopt the same approach at the Etihad Stadium but it is worth noting that Raheem Sterling, who got two goals and two assists as a right winger against Southampton last week, has operated on the left against each of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham.
He has done so successfully, too, scoring in the win at the Emirates Stadium and setting up Riyad Mahrez’s early decider at Wembley. Examine the map of his contributions in those three games (above) and it shows why Guardiola has selected him: firstly, he has done a job defensively, often near the touchline, in a way the Catalan may not trust Leroy Sane to.
In the final third, he is an inverted winger, coming infield to use his favoured right foot to shoot and looking for room in the channel between the right-back and the right-sided centre-back. It illustrates that Guardiola sees him as a big-game player. So, Pogba has shown, is he.
Richard has selected Paul Pogba, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling for Manchester City vs Manchester United on Twelve’s game, but who would you choose? Download our app on Android or iOS to take him on!