Stat Analysis: How important is Paul Pogba

At this point it’s well known how ridiculous it is that people keep criticizing Paul Pogba and saying Manchester United would be better off without him. In his three plus year at Old Trafford under two different managers the numbers back up how much more of an attack United generate when he’s on the pitch.

It’s cut and dry. I broke this down in far more detail here, where I dove into the tactical nitty gritty that basically amounts to this. Pogba is the only United midfielder who tries to make forward passes. When you take him out of the team, it becomes lateral pass after lateral pass. That’s why the attack looks so anemic right now.

But then I got to thinking. Are these numbers similar when Pogba goes on international duty for France? How influential is he in creating France’s attack?

After the World Cup loads of French players spoke about how pivotal a role Pogba played in Russia. Stands reason to believe he’s got to be a bit of a string puller there as well.

Remember the excuses have always been the same thing. France have Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe (among other dynamic forwards). They have N’Golo Kante providing tons of protection for Pogba in midfield, allowing him more freedom. With all those players around him obviously he’s going to play better.

There’s obviously a massive element of truth to that. Playing next to N’Golo Kante is going to mean Pogba has less to worry about defensively. Playing through balls to Mbappe is likely going to yield better results than playing through balls to Marcus Rashford or Jesse Lingard.

But what if it’s the other way around. What if Pogba is making those players better?

As a base line, since the 2018 World Cup Final France have played 14 games (competitive and friendly). They’ve taken 162 shots in those games (11.57/gm) and put 81 of them on target (5.79/gm) scoring 29 goals (2.07/gm).

Pogba has played in nine of them and has missed five due to injury.

Look at the splits in France’s attacking numbers.

With Pogba:
11 shots per game
5.89 shots on target per game
2.22 goals per game

Without Pogba:
12.6 shots per game
5.60 shots on target per game
1.8 goals per game

At first glance those numbers don’t suggest Pogba is that critical for France. Their shots on target per game drops a little bit without Pogba, and thus their goals per game drops a tick down too. But they actually get more shots without Pogba than with him.

But those numbers are heavily inflated by one major outlier. Septembers Euro 2020 qualifier against Andorra where France took 24 shots and put 12 of them on target.

Why is that match an outlier?

It’s not the fact that Andorra are one of the minnows of the world and France should be putting up those numbers against them. In this run Pogba got to play against Andorra, Bolivia, and Maldova, all good teams to pad your stats against.

What makes it an outlier is the team that France played that night. There was no Pogba, no Mbappe, no Kante, no Blaise Matuidi. The entire first choice midfield was gone. In France’s starting XI that night only Olivier Giroud, Griezmann, Raphael Varane, and Hugo Lloris can be considered first choice players. In other words, this isn’t the team that France would take to Euro 2020, and it’s not the group of players that usually play with Pogba (or Mbappe for that matter).

Since it’s such a small sample size, one outlier can heavily influence the numbers. So I took out the Andorra match and recalculated the numbers. It painted a much different picture.

Here’s the baseline now. France took 138 shots (10.62/gm) and put 69 of them on target (5.31), scoring 26 times (2/gm).

With Pogba:
11 shots per game
5.89 shots on target per game
2.22 goals per game

Without Pogba: (Minus Andorra)
9.75 shots per game
4.00 shots on target per game
1.5 goals per game

That’s a complete drop across the board. When Pogba’s out, France don’t generate as much of an attack. It’s not nearly as big a drop as what happens at United, but then again that’s because France have so much talent elsewhere on the pitch.

Last Friday I watched the awfully boring Iceland vs France match mainly so that you didn’t have to. Throughout the game the commentator kept remarking how France weren’t generating threatening chances mainly because they were missing Mbappe. He mentioned Pogba here and there, but he mainly focused squarely on Mbappe.

Seeing as France does have so much talent, and France’s numbers don’t drop that much without Pogba, it’s certainly possible that their creativity comes from elsewhere.

So I ran the numbers for Mbappe, and again taking into account that Andorra match, I ran the numbers again without that match.

Mbappe had started in nine of France’s 14 matches. He’s missed the last three with an injury and came on as a sub in two of them. Since I couldn’t get the numbers of how many shots France had before he came on vs after I counted the game he was a sub as “without Mbappe.” So basically how France was set up to play from the start.

(Note: Since Mbappe scored one and assisted the other goal vs Bolivia I counted those goals as “with Mbappe.”) 

With Mbappe:
10.22 shots per game
5.11 shots on target per game
2.22 goals per game

Without Mbappe: (Minus match vs Andorra)
11.5 shots per game
5.75 shots on target per game
1.5 goals per game

Interesting. Without Mbappe France’s baseline in shots doesn’t drop and actually rises over when he’s playing. This tells us that when Mbappe is on the field, things are going through him, and he’s taking a lot of the shots. The fact that the accuracy goes down when Mbappe is playing, tells us that he’s probably taking more bad shots.

Without Pogba, France’s numbers drop across the board. They get 1.31 fewer shots on target per game and their goal scoring drops by half a goal. Without Mbappe they get more shots and put more of them on target. The goals per game drop can be attributed to the fact that Mbappe is that good a finisher and you’re not going to replace that.

This is by no means trying to take away from how good Mbappe is. He’s incredible. France are 1000 percent worse off if they don’t have him. And at just 20 years old, he’s only going to get better and even more dangerous.

But is he the key behind France’s creativity? No. He’s a finisher, he’s not the creator. For Mbappe (and Griezmann) to shine they need to get the ball in dangerous spaces. They can’t do that by themselves.

The player that gets them the ball in those dangerous space is Paul Pogba. What these numbers really tell us is that when Pogba is out, Mbappe, Griezmann and all of France’s numbers drop because they aren’t getting the ball into dangerous spaces as easily. When Pogba plays it doesn’t matter who’s in front of him, he’ll get them the ball in a position to be dangerous.

The goals per game drop when Mbappe leaves because he’s just that much of a better finisher than everyone else. But with Pogba, they’re getting those chances. Pogba is the engine behind this France team.

As I alluded to earlier, the other excuse is that when playing next to N’Golo Kante Pogba has more freedom to get forward and influence the attack. Well, N’Golo Kante has played in seven of France’s 14 post World Cup games and missed seven more and wel…

France seem to generate more of an attack when Kante isn’t on the field. Interesting.

There’s no taking away how loaded of a team France is. Everyone is going to play better when they’re playing around uber talented players who know their role and work to make you better.

But don’t be naive and say Paul Pogba is better for his country because the great players just make him look better. It’s actually Pogba who is making them look better.

For club and country, Pogba is the string puller.

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