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The difference between Miralem Pjanic and Paul Pogba in Juventus' midfield

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Dissecting the influences of Paul Pogba and Miralem Pjanic

Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Juventus lost Paul Pogba, arguably their best player last season, to Manchester United in a world-record €105 million transfer this past summer. In response, they signed Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, the best players from their direct rival teams, Napoli and Roma, to replace Pogba's production. Pjanic is widely considered to be the direct replacement of Pogba because they were both top midfielders in Serie A.

Regarding goals and assists, Pogba and Pjanic were very similar last season. Pogba had eight goals and 12 assists for Juventus while Pjanic had 10 goals and 12 assists for Roma.

Here we compare the different playing styles of the two players and discuss how they impact Juventus tactically. Because Pjanic has only played a few matches for Juventus, there is not enough data to analyze them statistically. We will focus on two games where Juventus played against Palermo at home last season and away from home this season. The same — or very similar — opponent allows us to somewhat normalize the strength of the competition and better focus on the different contributions by both players. We will focus only on their contributions in the offensive part of the game. Also, one should not assume that Pogba or Pjanic is the only reason that influences Juventus’s playing style.

The availability of other players — such as Higuain and Claudio Marchisio — and the tactics of the opponents also have significant impacts.

Difference characteristics of Pogba and Pjanic

Although contributing a very similar number of goal and assist, Pjanic and Pogba are very different players. Many have argued that Pogba is a class box-to-box player while Pjanic is an attacking midfielder. These descriptions fit their physical characteristics. Pogba stands at 6-foot-3, robust and athletic, while Pjanic is a mobile player with an average height for a footballer (5-foot-11, 150 pounds).

However, their playing styles are not typical for the types of player people characterize them. For example, Pogba had about three dribbles per game in last season, a number that ranked him third in Serie A. This is very rare for a player with his physical characteristics. Completely opposite, as an attacking midfielder, Pjanic only had about 0.8 dribbles per game, a number that ranked him at 95th in Serie A last season. Interestingly, Pjanic is also one of the best passers in the league. He had almost 66 passes per game — with an impressive 85 percent success rate — that would rank him at 10th in the league last season. After several experimentations, Pjanic has now taken the left central midfielder position, a position that was similarly occupied by Pogba. However, the contrasting playing styles of the two players result in completely different interpretations of the same role:

Off-the-ball movements

Pogba is a player with incredible talent and all-around skills. There is almost nothing he cannot do with the ball. Although one area he can certainly improve is to learn to be effective WITHOUT the ball.

For almost 12 seconds, Pogba only stood there and watched his teammates passing the balls. He made no attempt to move to a new position to provide a better passing lane for his teammate. He was waiting for his teammates to pass him the ball. Pogba usually only moves when he has a chance to participate in an offensive move directly.

Pogba stood and watched his teammates passed the balls for eight seconds. But once Sami Khedira placed a through pass to Juan Cuadrado, Pogba immediately surged forward to the edge of the box to try to catch a pass from him.

It was very typical to have these kinds of movement/non-movement from Pogba during Juventus' offensive phase last season. Pogba is not a selfish player who does not help his teammates when he does not have the ball or a chance to score or assist. Pogba just does not know how to be productive for the team when he does not have the ball during the offensive phase, especially during the build-up. But it did not matter for Juventus last season

One of their major goals was to deliver the ball to him in an advanced position during the build-up. In fact, they WANTED him to stay further in opponent's half to create instead of dribbling in their own half. They didn’t want him to INITIATE the build-up; they wanted him to FINISH the build-up. They didn’t need him to create better passing lanes for his teammates; they needed to create better passing lanes for him.

Pjanic is very different from Pogba in this regard. He is always moving when he is on the field to provide better passing lanes for his teammates when he does not have the ball.

Between the first time and the second time he received the pass from his teammates, for about 15 seconds Pjanic was moving in a circle to try to find a position with a better lane for his teammates. His constant movements also create space for his teammates.

His movement towards the right dragged the Palermo's midfielder with him and created some rooms for Mario Lemina to surge forward. The same Palermo midfielder now had to attack Lemina, which in turn left Pjanic completely open, facing directly to the Palermo’s defense.

Pjanic moves continuously and he moves in a very vast area. But this is still work-in-progress for Juventus and Pjanic. A major problem during the first few games was that Pjanic sometimes moved too close to the central defensive midfielder (usually Lemina). Lemina did not have the passing ranges to pass to the advanced areas consistently. He also did not prefer to surge forward when he played that role, fearing that would expose the defense line if they lost the ball. In response, Pjanic would often move back to the own half to help build-up. The result is that Pjanic would end up very close to Lemina, which compromised the build-up.

Tendency to dribble

Another big difference between Pogba and Pjanic is the way they use the ball.

Pogba immediately surged forward when he received the ball. Once he encountered a Palermo player, the first thing he did was to try to dribble past him. He kept the ball until two other Palermo’s players joined to tackle him. On the other hand, Pjanic delivered a long pass to Higuain immediately after receiving a pass, even before a Palermo player came to tackle him.

Another example:

Here both players received a ball in a similar area. Pogba immediately dribbled and advanced toward the left sideline. He waited until Patrice Evra started to move forward and delivered a perfect pass toward the byline. In contrast, once received the pass, Pjanic did not seem even to want to touch the ball and immediately gave a dangerous pass toward the byline to Alex Sandro.

The biggest different influence that the two players have concerning tactics is how the positional plays develop. With Pogba, you want to play off his dribble. You want to play close attention to him when he has the ball (just like Evra did) because he can drag any player away physically or mentally (their attentions) with his dribble. It does not matter whether you are close to or far away from him. With his excellent passing range, you only need to prepare yourself in a dangerous position. He will be able to find a way to pass you the ball even with defenders tackling or marking him. Developing positional plays like this is easier but in some ways more predictable.

Playing with Pjanic will be very different. You can’t play off his dribble because he does not like to retain the ball. Developing positional plays around him take more preparations and works because his teammates need to understand his movements. You cannot just focus on where he moves. You need to know how his movements affect the spacing of the opponent’s defense. You need to make a decision on whether to pass to him or the teammate that is now left open by his movement. Developing positional plays like this is more difficult because you need to make players understand each other both spatially and temporally. It will take a lot of training and practice. But it will be more unpredictable for the opponents to handle.

Allegri's latest tactical adjustment to use Pjanic

Juventus manager Max Allegri has tried to use Pjanic in different positions since the start of the season. He has played as a defensive midfielder, as a left-central midfielder or as a Mezzala. He is still trying to figure out the best way to integrate him into the team and utilizes his talents. As mention earlier, Pjanic is excellent at creating spaces using his movement. His understanding of positioning and spacing is high-rated. To take advantage of that ability, Allegri makes a tactical adjustment to instruct Pjanic to play as a ball receiver that surveys the gap in the opponent's defensive line.

Shortly after Hernanes received a pass from Dani Alves, Pjanic immediately surged through between two Dinamo Zagreb defenders. Had Hernanes decided to pass to him instead of took a shot; Pjanic would be 1 vs. 1 with the keeper.

Immediately after Paulo Dybala received a pass from Dani Alves, Pjanic ran past two Zagreb’s defenders. For a moment, he was onside and completely open.

These are three examples where Pjanic tried to catch a long overhead pass from Leonardo Bonucci. The last one led to the opening goal.

First example:

Second example:

Third example:

Plays like this happened at least six or seven times in the first half. Therefore it must be designed and instructed by the coach before the game. Pjanic had gotten himself to be onside and free of defenders in many of these occasions. This positioning ability is something that Pogba doesn't have. Having Hernanes in the line-up also facilitated this tactic. With Hernanes’ excellent passing ranges, Pjanic did not have to help build-up a lot of the time. It will be a major weapon once Juventus perfect the timing of these movements.

Conclusion

Pogba and Pjanic are players with different skill sets. They influence the tactics of the team in very different ways. Both players have excellent passing ranges. Pogba creates space for himself and his teammates using his athleticism and skill while Pjanic creates space through his movement and positioning. Only time will tell which way is better. It may also be a matter of taste.

With Pogba, you have this:

With Pjanic, you have this:

But what all of us miss is this: