Was Jamie Carragher Justified In His Criticism Of Paul Pogba?

The great advantage Monday Night Football possesses over other football programmes is their position in the weekend’s schedule. Naturally, their word is the last word on the weekend’s Premier League action and are the final points we hear before attention moves on to the next episode of sport’s biggest soap opera. Therefore, the views expressed by Jamie Carragher and whoever happens to be alongside him tend to stay in the news cycle and resonate far more than those expressed on a Saturday night. With great power comes great responsibility and, as ludicrous as this might sound, what Carragher and Co say influences the way in which football fans think about the game.

Last night, Carragher and the team at Sky Sports decided to focus on the performance of Paul Pogba in the wake of Manchester United’s 2-1 loss to Manchester City. The former Liverpool defender felt the advanced positions Pogba was taking up left midfield partner Marouane Fellaini too exposed, and gave the freedom of the pitch to City’s two best players; David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. In case you missed it first time around, this is what Carragher said:

“For a central midfielder in a game of that magnitude, I think for the first 40 minutes it was one of the most ill-disciplined performances you will see.

“The only way to describe it was like watching the best player in the schoolyard that runs where he wants and does what he wants.

“Five minutes into a Manchester derby, when you know the centre of the pitch is so important to stopping Man City, he finds himself in a left-wing role trying to receive the ball.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I felt so sorry for Fellaini. He was left on his own in the centre of the pitch and there was so much space [for Man City].”

 

As ever, Carragher expressed his points with great articulacy and the clips used to support his point were well chosen. On first look, there can be little agreement with what he said. United lacked a defensive screen at the base of their midfield, a crucial area of the field against a Guardiola team; the former Barcelona boss likes to push his midfielders forward to create ‘superiority’ ahead of the ball.

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It has been written on these pages in recent weeks that defensive midfield is an area in which Mourinho might look to strengthen. His teams in the past have always been built upon a pillar of strength in the middle of the pitch; Claude Makelele, Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta, Xabi Alonso or Nemanja Matic. This is especially pertinent given that he is currently managing the most offensive set of full-backs he has had in his career.

There were however, clues as to why Mourinho might have wanted Pogba to take up the positions he did, which Carragher missed. The whole world and his dog know that the Frenchman is better offensively than he is defensively; it’s safe to assume that Mourinho knows this too. Either Pogba was told to sit close to Fellaini but ignored instructions, in which case he and his manager are going to have real problems.

A degree of blame will also lie at Mourinho’s door for asking a player to fulfil a role he isn’t capable of. Alternatively, United’s new boss told Pogba to move into these positions or gave him full license to do so. The strategy didn’t come off, for a few different reasons, but there is an explanation for why Mourinho might have tried it.

 

The former Chelsea manager’s comments after the game were extremely revealing. His habit of blaming his players for not acting upon his gameplan in the wake of a defeat is pretty unedifying, but it’s great for those of us who want to know his thinking. This is what he said after Saturday’s derby:

“I told them at half time that some of them were doing exactly what I told them not to do.

“I had told them never to play a first-station ball [a short pass between midfield and defence] — it’s where City want to press — but they did it 20 times.

“I think some of the boys felt the dimension of the game, everything around it, the derby, the focus, the attention. Maybe in the next big game I know who can accept that well; it’s very important.”

So it is clear that Mourinho wanted his team to play a more direct game to bypass City’s pressing in the middle of the pitch. This may be why Pogba was given licence to drift upfield; to make himself a target (on the ground, as well as aerially) for long balls.

Much was written before the game about the height advantage possessed by United and this tactic is consistent with that. When United thrashed City 4-1 in March 2015 under Louis Van Gaal, they deployed Fellaini in a similarly advanced role.

Mourinho may also have been thinking about exploiting the space behind City’s full backs, expecting them to take up central midfield positions when City had possession. Guardiola likes his full backs to do this for a number of reasons, but one is to have players who can stop teams counter-attacking through the centre of the pitch.

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The tactic was in some ways a reaction to Real Madrid’s demolition of Guardiola’s Bayern on the break in the 2014 Champions League semi-final. If Mourinho’s was anticipating City’s full backs to play narrow, perhaps he wanted Pogba to run into the space vacated out wide; Carragher picked up on how Pogba tended to drift to the left-hand side. However, on the day Guardiola played with his full backs in orthodox positions.

The lack of players with defensive instincts in United’s team will be a concern for Mourinho moving forward. It is worth remembering, however, that City played with David Silva in central midfield, a player with no greater natural inclination for defending than Pogba.

The Spaniard had a masterful game, but also did his defensive work, winning 60% of his tackles plus two clearances and two interceptions. Silva was part of a City unit that had absolute clarity in how they wanted to play with and without the ball. Pogba was part of no such unit; United looked like a team relying on the quality of individuals. Mourinho will surely have them in better shape by the next meeting with Guardiola’s City, but he has some catching up to do.

Featured image: All rights reserved by craig ballatyne.

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