Having led Manchester United to countless domestic and European titles in a remarkable 26 years at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson is widely considered to be the greatest football manager of all time. Thanks to his brilliantly subtle tactical tweaks and his unparalleled powers of motivation and man-management, he rarely put a foot wrong. But, courtesy of United's terrible midfield woes since his departure, there will always be one great blemish on his near-perfect record: He let Paul Pogba go.
That's the same Paul Pogba who's heading to the World Cup as the key player in the French national team, despite being only 21 years old. The same Pogba that last year followed in the footsteps of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Mario Götze to take home the Golden Boy award given annually to the most impressive European young player. The same Pogba who's considered by his current club Juventus to be priceless, and perhaps even the greatest midfielder in the world at present.
It all started when Pogba arrived in Manchester from Le Havre's youth academy at just 16, only to be marginalised after a couple of promising years in the reserves. Despite United's well-documented midfield weakness and a problematic string of injuries, Ferguson seemed strangely opposed to giving Pogba a first-team break. His opportunities were putting his development at risk, and he began to look for other clubs. Unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of suitors.
He left Old Trafford having made just three league appearances, with the major benefactors of his unrest being Italian champions Juventus. After arriving on a free transfer, Pogba immediately established himself as one of their most important players, making 18 starts en route to the Serie A title in his first season; appearances which encouraged France manager Didier Deschamps to give him his first full international cap in March.
In the season just gone, he became even more instrumental in Turin, displacing Juve's homegrown hero Claudio Marchisio in their starting lineup. Pogba started all but five of Juve's Serie A matches and failed to appear in just two of them, as the bianconeri became Italian champions for the third consecutive season. Pogba may be just 21, but it's clear he's no longer a star of the future. He's a star, full stop.
It's difficult to compare Pogba to other players, simply because he's so incredibly well-rounded. The closest is probably Manchester City's Yaya Touré, who shares the Frenchman's knack of marauding all over the field and pulling off stunts that other players could only dream of. Pogba is capable of lashing the ball in from all distances and angles, as well as dribbling past opposition defenders with sheer brute force. Defensively he's even handier than Touré, thanks to his tireless industry and greater positional discipline. His sheer height makes him appear to run half as fast as other players, yet cover the same ground twice as quickly.
Though Brazil 2014 may be his first ever major international tournament, Pogba's already heading in as one of France's most important players. After a shaky qualifying campaign in which Deschamps never seemed quite sure on his best midfield personnel, he's finally settled on a 4-3-3 with two box-to-box midfielders, Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, flanking the deep-lying playmaker Yohan Cabaye. If their recent friendly against Norway is anything to go by, it's an excellent decision.
It's also one that looks rather inspired by how Antonio Conte has managed to extract the best from Pogba at Juventus, where the most limited of deep-lying playmakers, Andrea Pirlo, operates in between Pogba and Arturo Vidal. Much like Vidal and his French international counterpart Matuidi, Pogba is certainly not an exclusively defensive player, but a phenomenally powerful and energetic one whose technical skill and large physical frame means that he is as much a threat going forward as he is useful in breaking up opposition moves.
Thus, when he's played either side of a deep playmaker in a midfield trio, Pogba is given the freedom to venture forward and maximise his offensive threat; whether that's bursting forward and brushing off defenders or charging into the box to get on a cross or second-balls. Meanwhile, the positional intelligence of the other box-to-box midfielder in the system (be that Vidal or Matuidi) allows him to sit back and provide defensive cover in support of Pirlo or Cabaye. When they break forward and attack the box, Pogba will do the same; hang back and shield the defence.
Certainly, there are subtle differences between the Juventus and French systems, with Conte preferring a central defensive trio with wing-backs rather than a Deschamps-style back four. That means there's a little more defensive pressure on Pogba and Matuidi to stop any sudden opposition counter-attacks in behind their advancing full-backs, as there are fewer central defenders who can step out wide to cover. But the basic concept is the same: give Pogba as much freedom as possible to get forward and wreak havoc while not compromising the team's defensive structure.
It's a system predicated on positional fluidity, intelligence and, most importantly of all, an intricate team understanding. Unlike at Juventus -- where Pogba has had a couple of years to become accustomed to this style of play -- France have had a matter of weeks. But one thing's for sure, if France can play to Pogba's strengths, they're going to have a chance of beating anyone. And if they make a deep run and the 21-year-old takes his rightful place as one of world football's household names, then Ferguson is going to look even sillier for never having given him a chance.