Most every great player has a signature move, a thing they do to or with or around the ball that immediately clarifies for you that that one of 10 uniformly colored little blurs out there running with the ball is in fact, say, Arjen Robben and not Philipp Lahm. (In that instance, it’s Robben’s dangling left wrist that makes a big, sweeping wave right as he feints toward the byline and inexorably cuts inside and past his defender.) Paul Pogba is a great player, or at least was one back at Juventus when he was put in positions where he could do what he does best. And what he does best, or what he loves doing most—his signature move—is blasting the bejesus out of the ball into the net with an outside-the-box volley.
Pogba hasn’t had the easiest of transitions in his return to Manchester United. Because of the makeup of the squad and the predilections of his manager, Pogba has spent most of his time in red in something of a reserved role as one of the two deeper central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. The Frenchman is versatile, yes, and hasn’t played terribly in the role, but it doesn’t offer him the same freedom to roam and create and score as he was afforded in Juve’s three-man central midfield—the very feats that made him a €100 million player in the first place.
Like everyone else, though, United manager José Mourinho has noticed that he’s not yet gotten the best out of Pogba. He’s attempted to address this in a number of ways. Mourinho’s tried out a few midfield partners for Pogba that would free his most talented player from the defensive and early build-up play responsibilities that have inhibited him from galloping into the final third with abandon and making something happen. He’s also pushed Pogba up a spot, taking him out of the 4-2-3-1's holding positions and playing him in the attacking midfield spot just behind the striker.
Most promisingly, the manager has experimented with a 4-3-3 formation in a few cup games that on paper would appear to be the best fit for Pogba and the rest of United’s talented but off-form (or underutilized, in the case of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick) players. It hasn’t quite clicked as of yet, but the important thing is that Mourinho gets that he needs to let Pogba be Pogba, and he’s trying to find ways to make that happen.
This weekend’s Premier League match against Swansea City offered the best hope yet that maybe the team has found a solution for unlocking Pogba’s shackled abilities. United cruised to 3-1 win by playing a 4-3-3 with Pogba as the left-sided, more attacking central midfielder in front of a strong deep-lying playmaker in Carrick. It was one of United’s most impressive league matches of the season, and it probably was no coincidence that the game’s most stunning moment involved Pogba doing a Pogba:
It’s not an everyday occurrence—especially in England, where so many former players in the commentary booth prattle on about how nobody “gets stuck in” or “thumps it up to the big lad in the middle” or “gets some chalk on their boots” the way they did during those players’ careers in the prelapsarian domestic league—so it must be said: The commentator here gets it exactly right.
This move, from start to finish, is a testament to who Pogba is at his best. That involves him picking up the ball from a relatively deeper position, facing the game, and wreaking havoc from there. Just look at this old collection of Pogba’s best goals—most of them similarly gorgeous volleys—and see how many started exactly like this, with Pogba taking the ball from an advanced midfield position, chipping a pass up and over the defense to find the run of a teammate, then making a late run forward to smash home the resulting cutback pass or failed clearance:
This is the Pogba Manchester United wanted and now need, and this entire scoring move is, as the commentator mentions, why an attacking but still truly central midfield position is best for him, rather than one that has him in the hole behind the striker. Pogba can still be the Pogba of Juventus at United, but that can only happen if he’s put somewhere on the field where he can maximize his special array of skills. Mourinho’s a stubborn guy, but he’s not stupid, and whatever the reasons it took him so long to stick with what so many people were calling for, at least he’s gotten there now. Hopefully this weekend’s goal and the performance that went with it means United have found that position and will commit to keeping him there.